Pittsburgh-Style Sandwiches

I did a Pittsblog doubletake on my drive in to Oakland this morning. On Banksville Road, I saw a King's Family Restaurants billboard advertising a "Pittsburgh-style" sandwich. (The image at left is borrowed from the King's website.) What is Pittsburgh-style? As you can see, it's fries-in-the-sandwich, made famous by Primanti Brothers.

Legally speaking, King's may be on safe ground. Fries-in-a-sandwich isn't a registered trademark, and while lack of registration alone doesn't prevent Primanti Brothers from making a trademark infringement claim, Primanti Brothers would have to prove that fries-in-a-sandwich isn't "functional" as that term is used in federal trademark law. And I doubt that Primanti Brothers could meet that burden. Federal trademark "dilution" law might give Primanti Brothers more leverage, if it can prove that fries-in-a-sandwich is "famous" as well as associated with the restaurant, and Pennsylvania trademark and unfair competition law may provide Primanti Brothers will additional options.

As usual, though, the law isn't the most interesting angle here.

Primanti Brothers aside, King's advertisement seems consciously designed to appeal to groups *other* than the so-called Cupcake Class. That's neither a good nor a bad thing, since Pittsburgh can be a big food tent, but note how the ad defines and targets the market -- "Yinz" in the headline; a huge sandwich for only $5.99; fries and cole slaw. This isn't farmers' market-style or slow-food-style or even Whole Foods-style. This is a slab of cheap, high fat food. And King's wants to call this "Pittsburgh," as if high fat food defines the region.

Does it? Really? Or is this another stereotype that belongs in the dustbin of history? That's what bugs me about the ad: The conscious appeal to the old as a way of defining new ("look at our old sandwich, which is really new!"); the conscious appeal to the old as a way of defining all of us. Primanti Brothers is just fine for what it is, but "Pittsburgh-style" it may not be.


18 Responses to "Pittsburgh-Style Sandwiches"

Anonymous said... 2/12/2007 11:42 AM

What a weak imitation with those little pieces of toast rather than the slabs of italian bread.

There is a restaurant chain around Cleveland (Panini's) which sells the same sort of sandwich. Theirs at least comes on the right bread, but doesn't have that Primanti's sweet and sour cole slaw.

Benjamin said... 2/12/2007 1:13 PM

San Francisco has them too. Giordano Bros. was modeled after Primanti's and I dare say they're better.

Take a look here:



Jefferson Provost said... 2/12/2007 1:37 PM

But it is Pittsburgh style, Mike! I hope you do't feel that we have to present ourselves as bean-sprout-eating BoBos in the interest of regional economic development.

And what's wrong with high-fat? Sure it's bad for you, but so is high sugar (e.g. cupcakes ;-) ). Shouldn't we presume that intelligent people are capable of minding what the eat and choosing when to indulge?

Besides, do you think it has more fat per calorie than a $4 cupcake, New York hotdog, a plate of Texas BBQ, a Cincinnati 4-way, a Philly Cheesesteak, or a bowl of New England clam chowder?

It's funny, though. The other night I was walking to dinner at Union Grill with some grad student labmates from CNBC, all of whom were from elsewhere (I think), and I was laughing at the name of the "Pittsburgh salad" on the menu -- it has fries and cheddar cheese on top.

I said, "It's hilarious that they feel they have to call it that."

They said, "What was it called before?"

I said, "A salad."

Mike Madison said... 2/12/2007 1:51 PM

JP -
Don't overlook the "big tent" part of the post! (With all this fat and sugar, it may need to be a really big tent.) As bad as BoBo food snobbery can be, reverse BoBo-ism is just as bad. We can all break bread together. As for me, I've great pizza and burgers in Berkeley, which as we all know is BoBo sprout central.

YinzerBoy said... 2/12/2007 2:50 PM

Ironically enough, I've heard restaurants in other cities advertise their "Pittsburgh-style" sandwiches and salads. Cincinnati has a chain that makes a big deal of it, actually.

YinzerBoy said... 2/12/2007 2:51 PM

Well, they did a couple years ago anyway...

Tom Moertel said... 2/12/2007 4:14 PM

I sure hope Kings wasn't trying to demonstrate "Pittsburgh-Style" copywriting, too: the apostrophe in the ad's headline is upside down.


Jefferson Provost said... 2/12/2007 4:26 PM

C'mon, it's just King's, after all. It's not the kind of place people go for hummus and pitas. I believe in your big tent, but Kings is just one of many under the tent. I don't think they're staking claim to the definition of Pittsburgh for everyone, but it is one definition of Pittsburgh for some people, and a valid one.

The people who promote Pittsburgh's economic development have an odd self-consciousness about our blue-collar heritage and culture that you don't see elsewhere. I think it should be possible for Pittsburgh to embrace traditions of its blue-collar past (culinary and otherwise) while still promoting itself as an economically modern city.

Anonymous said... 2/12/2007 4:32 PM

All I can say is that an ad like this is reason # 45 why people like me will never return to Pittsburgh.

Mike Madison said... 2/12/2007 4:43 PM

It is "just" King's, but it's an interesting little case study in the rhetoric (I'm thinking classical rhetoric, not just language and argumentation). I guess I disagree on what the ad is staking a claim to. I don't read it as "If you happen to be a King's kind of person, then this sandwich is for you." I read it as "If you want a Pittsburgh-style sandwich, then come to King's; otherwise, eat somewhere else." Those strike me as different messages. I'm not a Pittsburgh native and you (JP), I take it, are, so where you read "Pittsburgh-style" as embracing the past, I read it as stereotyping the past. Your read is inclusive, regarding the old; mine is exclusive, regarding the new. (IOW, longtime Pittsburghers are sensitive about being set aside; newcomers are sensitive about being accepted.) There isn't a right or wrong here, simply an observation about the complexity of something that seems as simple as roadside billboard.

Bram Reichbaum said... 2/12/2007 4:53 PM

Kings has severe marketting issues. Their last innovation was the "Frownie" -- a brownie with a big icing frown, designed to compete with the Ean n' Park Smiley Cookie only, you know, depressing.

The high fat content of the sandwich doesn't bother me. Ironic usages of Pittsburghese irritate the hell out of me. Can you imagine appealing to an African-American audience by spelling out words in what we used to call Ebonics?

YinzerBoy said... 2/12/2007 9:53 PM

Aww, I loved the Frownie!!! They even sold them in bunches of six, called them a Pity Party!

'Course, I was in a more sardonic stage of life then...

At least it wasn't called Pixburgh Style.

Jefferson Provost said... 2/12/2007 10:55 PM


It hadn't occurred to me that newcomers to Pittsburgh would find that message excluding, but I can see how it could be. Still, what's there to do? Like it or not, Primanti's style sandwiches have gained a national reputation as a "Pittsburgh style" thing. That reputation long precedes this ad, and goes back at least as long as there have been Primanti's concessions at the local stadiums, exposing the TV crews at nationally televised football games to our "weird sandwiches." After that, it was a kind of autocatalytic thing where more Pittsburghers embraced the Primanti's sandwich because it was now a nationally known Pittsburgh thing, causing it to be more of a Pittsburgh thing.

But every place and culture has these unique things that make up its identity, and almost by definition, these are going to be things that have been around long enough to gain some momentum, and so naturally they're going to be older things.

[The irony here is that I don't much care for Primanti's sandwiches, and I don't eat salads with fries and cheese anymore because they're so fattening. I had to wait at King's a few weeks ago while my car got inspected and I was afraid wasn't going to find anything on the menu I wanted to eat.)

Amie Gillingham said... 2/13/2007 8:39 AM

I don't think the cupcake class and the Pittsburgh-style sandwich class are incompatible. Pittsburgh food snottism is ecletic and embraces the big tent theory. One can shop at Whole Foods and still go for ocassional late night grease-fests at Ritters. And one can debate whether they want to get their cupcakes in Squirrel Hill or Shadyside and still eat their Pittsburgh-style sandwiches when a food-nostalgia craving strikes their fancy. Only the true Pittsburgh food snot will get theirs at Primantis, preferably the one in Oakland, the North Side, or the Strip. They don't settle for imitations when they can have the real deal. It isn't about the sandwich itself. It's about the nostalgia and experience behind the sandwich. Which is why the Pittsburgh-style sandwich at Kings will be a short-lived menu item.

Pittsburgh food, like Pittsburgh itself, is as much about memory as it is about the future. We value our greasy institutions as much as we value haute cuisine and everything in between. We embrace the Vietnamese dive as much as the trendy vegan place down the street.

Kings? Stick to the apple pie and cinnamon ice cream. Because that is ultimately Pittsburgh food nostalgia in its own right.

Anonymous said... 2/16/2007 8:15 AM

Please bear in mind that an advertising agency here in town came up with the concept for both the Frownie and this new Pittsburgh-style sandwich. Interestingly enough, these Pittsburgh stereotypes are coming from an agency that is owned and operated by people that lived in NYC for many years. Maybe this is splitting hairs, but I think poking fun at stereotypes when you're a native seems a little different than categorizing an entire city-full of people you haven't been part of for very long.

Scott said... 2/19/2007 7:38 PM

Pittsburgh is becoming a nice mixture of blue collar town and cupcake class types. I don't know that it can stay that way, but we are in the middle of a transition time, so who knows? I noted on my blog that while we don't have Paris Hilton (Thank goodness), we do have heiresses like the Sarris Sisters. That's chocolate, not cupcakes, but maybe close enough?


Vivi said... 10/10/2007 9:10 PM

Here's a link about Primanti-style sandwiches. Such fun to eat.


It's what i'll be making October 22nd - yes it screens Monday here ... the first Steelers game to be shown here (how many weeks into the season?)!

ginger said... 10/20/2007 4:14 AM

The French' ve been doing the fries-in-the-sandwich forever; they call it "merguez frites." not to say your Primenti Bros. isn't a Pittsburgh-style sandwich. It's not the most original idea in the world, either.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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