Iconic sandwich shops have become a metaphor for Pennsylvania’s second largest city not just surviving — but thriving — in America’s struggling economy.
PITTSBURGH — The sight of eight exhausted Harley Davidson motorcycle riders rolling into Primanti Brothers in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Strip District may seem unremarkable just past quittin’ time on a muggy April afternoon, but a closer look at the backs of their jet-black, patch-covered jackets reveals a metaphor for this city’s revitalized downtown.
These self-described rednecks from little London, Kentucky were not just killing time after clocking out for the night. No, they were in town because all they’ve heard about these past few years is how downtown Pittsburgh is both fabulously entertaining and immune to the recession.
“My wife and I were watching Food Network one day and we saw this restaurant being raved about,” said Mike Chaney, a father of six who told his Harley Club buddies it was time to “get our [butts] up here to try Primanti Brothers.” They visited the original shop where it all began in 1933 in an area referred to as “the strip,” where a truck driver founded this iconic 24/7 restaurant in an area that was filled by a railroad, loading docks, and trucks. Instead of the typical entree with side dishes, Primanti’s sandwiches include slaw and french fries between the slices of bread and wrapped in wax paper for easier eating on the road.
“Customers didn’t have time to wait, so they threw everything on the sandwich,” said Larisa Waschak, who has served customers here for 24 years. “There’s not many people who will finish, but there are also people who will get two or three of them, too.”
To prove Waschak right, both Chaney and Harley crew leader Angie Roberts — the lone woman in the group — each ordered two sandwiches packed with roast beef, cheese, mayo, and a big batch of greasy french fries stuffed between two hefty slices of white bread.
“It’s one of many things that make Pittsburgh what it is. We love it,” Roberts said. She and Chaney, who claim they snuck 10 quarts of moonshine into their hotel rooms, agree Primanti Brothers has the best sandwich they have ever tasted.
Compliments like that are old hat to Antoinette Haggerty, who is a local legend from her television appearances and for serving the crowd from behind the long counter for 38 years. She even worked on her birthday this past Thursday, leaving just before we arrived.
“Everyone who comes in [knows Antoinette] because they’ve seen her on TV, because they’ve seen her on Man v. Food on the Food Network, History, Discovery Channel, everything. They come to see her.
“She built this place,” said Waschak. “She is a little Italian woman. Everything’s funny about her actually. If you ask her something, she’ll either grab you, pinch you [or] speak Italian to you. You don’t know what she’s saying, but you kind of get the gist of it. She’s wonderful — absolutely wonderful — with customers.”
So is Waschak, the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest who grew up on Pittsburgh’s south side and never left.
“My friend just asked me to move to Seattle,” she said, “but my heart is not ready to leave Pittsburgh yet.
“The whole city changed. We went from a steel mill through here [when] everything was orange and dusty to them completely turning the city around. We lost a lot of people… because once the mills closed down, people were out of work. They had to move on. A lot of people have come back and actually started their own businesses. It’s booming now. It’s good for us.”
Meanwhile, George Ballester was eating, reading, and relaxing at a sunny patio table outside another Primanti Brothers location in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Market Square — a place more vibrant than it was even a decade ago. Just days ago, he moved from Detroit to Pittsburgh, and will start his new bank job around the corner this Monday.
“Detroit looks like Europe after the second World War,” said Ballester, who studied at London School of Economics on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship before attending Oxford. “The big thing [about Pittsburgh] is they have the will to change here. Detroit has this remarkable entrepreneurial spirit, but it’s paralyzed by various political factions fighting with one another.”
With Pittsburgh still having one of America’s youngest mayors, Ballester thinks there may be magic in the relentless optimism of youth. “If you’re going to survive in this economy, you have to be very adaptive. I’m a big believer in [Charles] Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest.’”
Ballester may benefit from the power of comparison to a city like Detroit he calls an “absolute disaster.” Seated directly behind Ballester was a colorful, outspoken gentleman who agreed with neither the newcomer’s glowing assessment of Market Square nor this city’s handling of the recession.
“It [once] was more relaxing,” said Eric Vaughn, the owner of a Pittsburgh advertising firm. “It felt more like a park than a city. There wasn’t as much concrete. Now there’s concrete everywhere.”
A regular at Primanti’s, Vaughn knows a thing or two about the economic challenges of the last four years. He downsized his company from seven employees to four after the economy crumbled late in the summer of 2008.
“Pittsburgh is born to ride through the hard times. Folks bond together in the toughest times and ride it out together,” Vaughn said. “I don’t think Pittsburgh did enough to adjust to the recession. Businesses could have offered lower prices for four to five months. Instead everyone raised prices. [But] it’s a good place to live and raise a family.”
Market Square Primanti’s General Manager Mike Mitcham knows all about resilience.
“For years it seemed every [Pittsburgh] mayor had another idea and tried to do something with downtown. They all sounded great at the time, but they just never came to fruition,” said Mitcham, who started as a server 12 years ago in this charming 19th century building.
In 1997, a $5 million project was launched to revitalize Market Square. This culturally rich, centrally located section of Pittsburgh enjoyed the height of its popularity back in Big Steel’s heyday of the 1970s.
Then, as those familiar with Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood know, the hard drug trade took over in the 1980s.
“A couple nuisance bars and a barber were selling heroin right out of their shops,” Mitcham said, skirting over the more consistent problem of panhandlers hitting customers up for cash on their strolls across Market Square.
But nowadays, it’s a much different story.
“I will see somebody who came in years ago and I’m like, ‘Where have I seen this person?’ So I’ll hear [a guy] say, ‘My wife and I were here six years ago, you waited on us, we had such a great time. I’ll say ‘Oh yeah.’ That’s one of my favorite parts about working here.”
Back inside the Strip District’s 79-year-old Primanti Brothers shop, Waschak remembers being stuck in a bad snowstorm with a guy from work. “We were here two or three shifts,” she said. “We had people driving from Canada at four o’clock in the morning. I’m like, ‘How did you get here? I can’t even get out.’”
Nobody ever really wants to get out of Primanti Brothers. As the sun began its slow descent over the top of Mt. Washington — overlooking the confluence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers — those eight rowdy Harley enthusiasts were just warming up for the long evening ahead.
“Let’s toast to our friendship and the greatest sandwich place anywhere,” Chaney shouted with a smile.
Waschak took in the moment. “Even going through rough times, this place has stayed around,” she said. “We’ve had slow days, but we’ve never had bad days.”
Thor Tolo on Twitter: @thortolo.
Thor Tolo on Email: email@example.com
Elizabeth Wiley contributed to this post: @ewiley