There have been 11 earls of Sandwich. The first, bestowed the title in 1660, was a celebrated British naval commander. Others have been politicians, statesmen, authors, and supporters of the arts. They were important people. They had excellent hair.
But even now, all anyone seems to know about this proud lineage is that one of themas it turns out, the fourth one, born in 1718apparently had a liking for meat and bread, or maybe cheese and bread, and he ate it while playing poker because he was a degenerate gambler unable to stop for a meal, or he ate it because he was so busy being a war hero that he had no time for a knife and fork, or he instructed his soldiers to eat it because it traveled well, oryou know what? It doesn't matter. Nobody is quite sure what happened, but we can all agree that, although meat and bread were entered into the historical record as far back as Babylon, humankind's greatest lazy meal became known as the Earl of Sandwich's domain, and so it's been sandwiches all the way down.
Which is fine, really: Everyone has to be known for something. But the earls busied themselves with more stately things, until the current earl, whose actual name is John Edward Hollister Montagu, needed money to maintain the old family estate, because carrying a fancy title today doesn't pay nearly as much as it did 300 years ago, and a previous earl gave away much of the family wealth. And so hold your noses, ye ghosts of olde: It was time to cash in on the family name, to finally cede history to the hoi polloi. It was time to open up a sandwich shop, and call it Earl of Sandwich.
Did an earl of Sandwich ever try this before?
"Oh, nooo," says Robert Earl, his British accent densely packing that "no" with disregard.
Robert Earl is not an earl of Sandwich. His last name just happens to be Earlbut he's also, ahem, the Earl of Planet Hollywood, and the Earl of Hard Rock Cafe, and the Earl of the Everton Football Club, and, well, how many things have you owned, Robert Earl?
"I don't remember," he says, though he clearly does, because a minute later, he's reciting the newsstand sales of Popstar! Magazine. He is also the Earl of Popstar! Magazine, which you can turn to, as scores of preteens do, to keep tabs on the latest celeb kissing confessions!
And he's telling me this while reclining proudly in an Earl of Sandwich sandwich shop near New York's Times Square, which opened this summer. John Edward Hollister Montagu's son Orlando wrote Robert Earl (who lives in Orlando, Florida) in the '90s, pointing out this coincidence and saying it's a great reason to do business together. "So the letter went straight in the trash," Earl says. But then Planet Hollywood hit some hard times, and suddenly this Sandwich silliness seemed more attractive. So he met with the family, and liked what he saw, and everyone agreed to make lots of money together, and so that's what they're doing. The first shop opened in 2004. They had 15 by SeptemberOrlando, Paris, London. By next year there will be 40. Some pull in $10 million a year. "We're going for global domination," he says.
Robert Earl is not a modest man. He is a fast-talking man, a straightforward man, the Earl of Deadpan. His wife is never quite sure if he's joking. He tells me he used to dine regularly with Buddy Cianci, the disgraced former mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, who also launched a line of marinara sauce. I ask if Earl helped Cianci launch the sauce. No, Earl says, but he ate a lot of it. He says this with a straight face. It is believable.
The Earl of Sandwich and Robert Earl. The only person missing is the Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl.
My sandwich arrives, rectangular and wrapped in gold foil.
"It's a gold brick," Robert Earl says, pleased, leaning forward.
"Why a gold brick?" I say.
"Why not?" he scolds. "Does everything have to have a reason?"
Some things do, certainly. Like, how does one know a good novelty when he sees one? Planet Hollywood, Hard Rockthese are preposterous ideas, borderline offensive, as if anyone would think glamour and soul are transferable in a Celebrity BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger that costs $13.99 and tastes like half that. And yet the tourists come, and eat, and leave thinking they've had a localized experience, though the only substantive difference between Planet Hollywood Orlando and Planet Hollywood Guam is the place name on the T-shirt. But right now, in this sandwich shop, Robert Earl cannot be drawn into such a conversation. "I work in volume," Earl says, and he's sitting in the presence of it, basking in its efficiency.
Because in the Earl of Sandwich, he saw something. He saw a product he could make quickly and sell for $5.99, a simple product for cash-strapped times, pegged to a novelty that raises it above whatever other generic sandwich shops are out thereplaces that don't make you feel a part of something, don't give you a legacy to plug into, don't tell you a story, however almost certainly false it is.
For the record: Robert Earl prefers the version where the Earl of Sandwich is a hungry war hero. "True story," he says.
That's what makes this work: a man with a story to sell and a man who sells stories, who know that common things can be marketed with great value, can become a club with no membership and no benefits, can feel exciting and unique and transformed into gold bricks of both varieties.
Robert Earl has used some of his older gold to buy an islandor at least a part of one. He's hazy on details. In any case, it's called Parrot Cay, in the Turks and Caicos. Bruce Willis has a house there. So do Donna Karan and Keith Richards.
"You're in good company," I say.
"They're in good company," Earl snaps back.
I eat my sandwich. Tuna melt. It's actually pretty good.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.