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  • 10.19.11

The Earl of Sandwich’s Sandwich Man

Selling food is a lot like anything else: You need a good story.

The Earl of Sandwich’s Sandwich Man
Majiscup

Earl of Sandwich. | Image: Flickr user Majiscup

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.

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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!

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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.

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“Why not?” he scolds. “Does everything have to have a
reason?”

Robert Earl is the Earl 
of Good Times. | Photo by David M. Benett/Getty Images

Robert Earl is the Earl
of Good Times. | Photo by David M. Benett/Getty Images

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.

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“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.

Follow Jason Feifer @heyfeifer and @fastcompany on Twitter.

About the author

Senior editor at Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter @heyfeifer.

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