Monday, July 15, 2024

‘Primo’ bite: Local couple brings Philly hoagies to Wilmington’s dining scene

The Crusher features cracked pepper turkey, Cooper sharp American, topped with pepper shooters — cherry peppers stuffed with sharp provolone and prosciutto. (Courtesy Primo Hoagies)

WILMINGTON — Tuesday, Kathy Rooney was handing out flyers to area organizations and businesses about the grand opening of her and her husband’s latest venture, Primo Hoagies.

Next Thursday, Aug. 17, the Pine Valley area of the Port City will have a new sandwich experience for diners — one that’s gained praise up North. Primo Hoagies will be located at 3710 S. College Road in Fulton Station near Drum Trout Brewing and Cafe Chinois.

Owned and operated by Kathy and her husband, TJ, the Rooneys, originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, have been fans of the sub stop for years.

“My husband used to bring them home from Philly before we got a Primo’s in Bethlehem,” Kathy said. 

Churches, fire stations, residences — she stopped at 30 or so places along South College Road to spread the word of the new store. 

“I want people to meet us,” Kathy said. “We want to get to know the people and neighborhoods; that’s the fun part.”

Her boots-on-the-ground approach comes honest. Kathy was reared in a family of entrepreneurs. Relatives in Wisconsin own and operate a lumber company, and she grew up with a mother and father who ran a motel. She was often helping the family make beds and clean rooms during youth.

“They’ve both passed,” Kathy said of her parents. “They would have loved to know that we were going into business for ourselves. They prided themselves on running a really good business, treating their employees well, and being community-centered. That’s what I learned as a child.”

The Rooneys relocated to Wilmington two years ago, though they owned a home here since 2013. Upon moving to the area full time, they upstarted Airlie Pointe Yacht Charters, which takes people fishing, diving, on sunset cruises and more. TJ also has his own consulting business. 

Last year, the husband-and-wife team signed a five-franchise contract with Primo.

“We wanted to put money into something we love and we think other people will love and in some ways, it was selfish: We missed Primo hoagies,” Kathy said. 

What distinguishes the sandwich, according to Kathy, is its heavily sesame-seeded bread, baked in New Jersey by Liscio’s Italian Bakery. It’s sturdy and crusty, par-baked to ship and be finished off at the 100 or so locations that have opened since Primo was founded in Philadelphia in 1992.

“There is only one kind of bread with two options: seeded or not seeded — no wheat or anything like that,” Kathy said.

There is the exception of ordering one of their concoctions as a wrap or salad. But, according to Kathy, “the Italian bread is what makes it.”

The meats come from Thumann’s, founded in the late ‘40s, and avoid fillers, flavorings and by-products. Toppings range from the expected — shredded lettuce, tomatoes, paper-thin sliced onions — to the unexpected.

For instance, there are sliced stuffed cherry tomatoes filled with sharp provolone and prosciutto — called “pepper shooters.” There is a roasted red pepper salad, marinated mozzarella and even cooked broccoli rabe.

“It’s very much Italian,” Kathy said.

The menu is 50-deep with various styles of sandwiches, offered both for meat eaters and vegetarians. There are Primo specialties, like the Abruzzie, stacked with home-roasted pork, sharp provolone and broccoli rabe.

Italian subs come in multiple selections — mild, sharp and old-school included. Some are topped with sweet capicola, others hot or dry-cured capicola, plus prosciutto, Genoa salami, regular provolone or sharp provolone.

Primo’s menu also features a special hot spice that can be dusted over the sandwich. 

“It’s a secret blend,” Kathy said, but a whole menu of “Diablos” turn up the heat on the handhelds, some even going beyond fire territory with the addition of hot pepper cheese and hot soppressata. There are also long hot peppers to punch it up.

“My favorite sandwich out of all of them is a chicken diablo,” she said. 

It’s topped with a chicken cutlet, Buffalo mozzarella and the spice blend. There are multiple meatless versions, too, including the veggie diablo, with eggplant, sharp provolone, broccoli rabe, long hots and the spice blend.

Various reubens called “Schawartzies,” come in corned beef, roast beef and turkey versions, while traditional American deli classics are also featured. 

“And of course we have Phillies,” Kathy said, featuring traditional, pizza and Buffalo options. Many are made with Cooper sharp cheddar — another company founded in Philly in 1893, now Wisconsin-based — known for its melting quality.

Primo Hoagies will open Aug. 17, 10 a.m., with the first 100 customers receiving free sandwiches. The Primo-sized sandwiches (9-inches), normally around $13, will be sold for $6.99 on opening day.

Kathy said they’re actively looking at other locations to open the next four Primo’s. Leland is on their radar, as is Porters Neck, downtown, Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach.

“It’s just a matter of when and where, but they will be in the greater Wilmington area,” she said. “Whether it takes two, three, five years, we are unsure. But our plan is within the next five years to have at least five.”

Each Primo will have roughly 15 employees, including full- and part-time workers, plus managers and one general manager to oversee all the stores. Those who hold the upper positions are sent to “Primo School” to learn the vast menu.

“They actually had to take a test with over 100 questions about every single sandwich; our general manager was the first to get a 100,” Kathy said.

Aside from paying higher than minimum wage, the Rooneys will also fund a full-time employees, after a certain amount of time, a stipend for health care. And there will be opportunities for people to move up within the franchise, to become assistant managers at other locations.

“I see young people around here who just can’t afford to live,” Kathy said. “My husband and I agree on this very much, and our general manager, we would rather give employees a raise and more opportunities over having a second house.” 

The group also plans to work closely with nonprofits, to help sponsor events with food and monetary donations. So far, they’ve paired up with Access of Willmington and the North Carolina Coastal Federation.

“Other stores do high school athletes of the week,” Kathy said. “I’d like to do more than that — more than just athletes — but also feature different types of students.” 

Aside from sandwiches, the restaurant also serves Pennsylvania-brand Herr’s chips, a variety of cookies and pudding desserts. Some of the toppings and sides — potato salad, coleslaw, marinated peppers, sharp provolone — are sold by the pound.

Primo Hoagies will be open daily, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; the menu can be accessed here.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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