Creating the $100 cheesesteak

Mar 6, 2018

In most businesses, marketing’s a one-way street. Product developers basically go to the marketing team with a new offering and say, “Find a way to promote this.”

But great things can happen when marketing also has a say in developing products.

When restaurateur Stephen Starr opened the upscale steakhouse Barclay Prime in Philadelphia in 2004, he turned to his chief operating officer and creative guru Howard Wein to build excitement for the new spot.

Wein’s promotional idea? Add a new item guaranteed to get people talking: a $100 cheesesteak.

Kobe beef, triple-cream Taleggio cheese wiz, shaved truffles, sautéed foie gras, caramelized onions and shaved heirloom tomatoes, all on a homemade brioche bun topped with mustard and served with champagne.

It was an immediate sensation. The sandwich got a heap of media coverage, telling Barclay Prime’s story perfectly – flashy, top-of-the-line ingredients with an extravagant price tag. The epitome of indulgence.

More than a decade later, Barclay Prime is still going strong. It made Philadelphia magazine’s top 50 restaurants of 2015 and 2016. The $100 cheesesteak (which now costs $120), still gets a mention in the magazine’s write-up of the best steakhouses in Philadelphia. Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger opened his 2013 book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” with the story of the cheesesteak and its role as a conversation starter.

Ultimately, the sandwich was always more about conversations than sales. Barclay Prime admits it only sells a few a night. But it’s a lesson in the power marketing can have when building an idea from scratch.

Long story short: too often, marketing is viewed only as a tool to promote or sell an existing product. But really effective promotion can be a two-way street, with marketing offering input into product development as well.

This article also appeared in our weekly newsletter, Long Story Short. It was written by Alex Irwin.

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