Marketing Lessons from a Pastrami Sandwich

I just got back from lunch with my grandfather at Harold’s, a New York-style deli that serves things like corned beef and brisket, chicken soup with matzoh balls, and potato knishes. At 2:00 on a Friday afternoon the dining room was absolutely packed, with people lining up out the door for takeout as well.

At first glance it’s hard to tell why. The food is excellent, but the place is in a nondescript lot in the middle of a bleak industrial park. And they are NOT cheap. Far from it, in fact. They want $18.95 for a hot pastrami sandwich. $18.95!!!!

So why are all of these people lining up to pay $18.95 for a sandwich in the middle of a recession?

Well for one thing, the portions are ENORMOUS, even by American standards. Everyone knows this, so they order one sandwich between 2 or 3 people and take home the rest. I saw a family of four at the next table split one Reuben, and two grown men at the table opposite share a single bowl of matzoh ball soup (with one gigantic matzoh ball!)

The restaurant does not frown upon sharing; in fact, they encourage it. There’s also a free pickle bar with various types of sour pickled things.


The legendary Harold’s Pastrami Sandwich

Now if you take sharing into account, the prices average out to about $7-8 per person, which is normal for this area.

But a normal-sized sandwich for $7 is nothing unusual, whereas a Harold’s sandwich is talked about for days.

It’s not limited to the sandwiches, either. Immediately across from the entrance there’s a refrigerated case containing the largest desserts and cakes I’ve ever seen. It was funny to watch people’s expressions when they spotted them. Every other person had their phone or camera out to take a picture to send to their friends or post online.

So what lessons can we take away from lunchtime at Harold’s?

  1. Be generous with your offerings. Give things away for free. Make people feel they’re getting value for their money. If you have a business online, give away free tips via an email newsletter or downloadable report.
Harolds' giant cake

Seriously, cakes bigger than your head!

  1. Get people talking right from the start. Offer informative, shareable content and then make it easy for them to share it via social networking tools. Put share buttons right on your blog posts!
  2. Position yourself to get the maximum amount of traffic. It may not be the most charming location, but I’m sure they do a ton of lunchtime business from all of the nearby office buildings. Also, this industrial park sits right at the busiest highway junction in New Jersey, where all of the interstate and many of the local highways meet. So it’s not too far out of the way for people to come from all over the state. For online traffic, do keyword research to find out what terms people are using to search for information in your sector. Find the terms with the most traffic for the least amount of competition, and then build content relevant to those terms so that search engines can start sending people to your site.
  3. Get the basic things right. Bottom line, the food and service at Harold’s are excellent. Without those two things, no amount of novelty would matter. For your business, focus on providing the best possible service or experience for your customer.
  4. And lastly, be memorable!

What offline inspiration have you gotten for your online marketing recently?

Pastrami sandwich image via Jorge Gobbi.


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