In 2004, an enterprising restaurateur named Howard Wein decided to open a steak house in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. Philly was certainly at no loss for steakhouses and he knew that this one would have to be distinctive. So he put together a top-notch, world-class kitchen and wait staff, offered a grade A menu, and called the place Barclay Prime.
But that in itself wasn’t enough. Barclay Prime was pretty much a well-kept secret until the restaurateur did something quite over-the-top: He created the most lavish, most expensive cheesesteak sandwich ever served anywhere.
Now, Philadelphia knows cheesesteaks-grilled beef, onions, peppers on a long roll with melted provolone cheese. It had been a staple of the citizenry’s diet for ages. But no one had ever had a sandwich like a Barclay Prime cheesesteak. It started with a freshly baked roll and thinly sliced, grilled Kobe beef, an accompaniment of mushrooms, shaved truffles, Maine lobster tail meat, and to top it off, a blend of three melted cheeses. Barclay charged the unthinkable price of $100.
The cheesesteak was an immediate hit, and it put Barclay on the map. Patrons would come in groups and sample it as an appetizer, just for the talk value. The Wall Street Journal and USA Today did articles on it, and David Letterman invited the Barclay chef to prepare him one on TV.
Barclay Prime remains the preeminent location for lavish, exclusive cuisine enjoyed by Philly high rollers. And while the cheesesteak remains on the menu and is mentioned in just about every restaurant review, the steaks and seafood have taken center stage.
The Barclay cheesesteak is a great story, one that clearly went viral and got people talking. But most importantly, as the story made the rounds, so did Barclay Prime. Suddenly the restaurant was top of mind with Philadelphians who would remark about it every time they saw an ad or billboard for cheesesteaks (a frequent event in that town).
The really intriguing idea that emerges from this remarkable story is just how unremarkable it is. It didn’t require a big marketing budget or an agency think tank to execute it, just the inventiveness of one guy looking to get his establishment noticed. In short, anybody can do this stuff with anything.
And there’s the lesson for us all. Often, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to generate talk-just come up with that remarkable thing and let the customers do the rest. One’s imagination is the most effective marketing tool.