Hoageez takes a bite out of brand building

'Talking Wall' has become a great source of interactive content.
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Linda and Mike Martin opened Hoageez in Hummelstown in December 2012.

Linda and Mike Martin opened Hoageez in Hummelstown in December 2012.

While doomsday preppers were preoccupied last December with the Mayan calendar and the possible end of the world, Linda and Mike Martin unleashed Hoageez on central Pennsylvania.

The seeds of our own destruction proved to be no match for sesame seeds, as the Martins’ take on the classic Philadelphia hoagie has gained a loyal following in its first 10 months. [Full disclosure: My stepdaughter worked at Hoageez this summer.]

The Martins had no experience in the food business, but Hoageez was some 15 years in the making. It began when the couple and their then-young daughters would make monthly trips to Philadelphia to sample the best cheesesteaks and hoagies that the City of Brotherly Love had to offer.

The couple – Linda, a former schoolteacher, and Mike, finance manager for a car dealership – had talked for several years about how fun it would be to open a hoagie shop. They thought Hummelstown, with its proximity to the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and other businesses, was the perfect place.

To understand what makes Hoageez tick, it helps to know what makes a hoagie.

Exactly what we do

“People who are fanatical about hoagies, to them there’s a world of difference between a sub and a hoagie,” Mike said. “So the name Hoageez, it just explains exactly what we do, what we are.”

What defines a hoagie is the type of roll, and the quality and variety of meats and cheeses that go into it.

“We do it all in house,” Mike said, slicing capicola.

Hoageez is at 422 Walton Ave., Hummelstown.

Hoageez is at 422 Walton Ave., Hummelstown.

Hoageez has three suppliers each for rolls and meats. One of the latter offered to provide a sign and advertising support in exchange for an exclusive arrangement, but the Martins preferred another vendor’s roast beef.

“So as tempting as that [offer] was, I just couldn’t sell out and do that,” Mike said.

The Martins have embraced the history of the hoagie, which traces its beginning to Hog Island Shipyard and an area that now encompasses Philadelphia International Airport. It was at Hog Island, so the story goes, that Italian immigrants among the work force introduced their colleagues to sandwiches made with cold cuts.

Shipyard roots

The wooden floor and crates (used to display T-shirts) at Hoageez are a tribute to the hoagie’s shipyard roots, as are the historical photos on the wall. Mike said Hog Island Hoagies was a name they considered, but they ultimately feared an over-association with pork sandwiches.

To be sure, Hoageez’ menu features the likes of ham and salami, prosciutto and coteghino (Italian sausage). But roast beef, turkey and tuna are options, too. The sandwiches carry names such as Rocky, Broad Street, and Yada Yada.

The rolls come in soft or hard varieties, trucked in daily from Philadelphia. Because of this, Hoageez’ operating hours come with an asterisk: Closing time – 7 p.m. weekdays, 2 p.m Saturdays – is subject to change depending on whether the rolls sell out, as they often do.

“It’s the only way we can do it,” Mike said. “At first it was a little difficult. We had people come in, and they didn’t understand the concept. … We’re not going to compromise what we do. It’s worked for us.”

With an eye toward additional locations, the Martins have focused on building the Hoageez brand. Their logo is orange, as are an accent wall, stools and Hoageez T-shirts that the Martins wear and sell.

Hoageez and many other eateries post their menus on chalkboards, but the Martins found another valuable use that has helped set their business apart. It has become a great source of free, interactive content.

What’s on your mind?

Dubbed “The Talking Wall,” this chalkboard borrows from Linda’s teaching days. In order to get her five different reading classes to connect with one another, she posted sheets of butcher paper (hmm, a prelude to working with fresh deli meats?) on which the students wrote observations about what they had read and posed questions for the other reading classes.

The Talking Wall invites customers to express themselves.

The Talking Wall invites customers to express themselves.

Linda thought Hoageez customers – answering the question “What’s on your mind?” – might take to The Talking Wall with thoughts on the hoagies they had eaten or offer sandwich suggestions. But it has evolved into a community all its own.

Customers post their names, birthday or wedding anniversary wishes, artwork. In August, someone wrote, “Taking Hoageez to the Little League World Series” in Williamsport. Some people even put in plugs for their own businesses.

When the chalkboard is filled, the Martins take a photo and post it to Facebook, where it lives on while a new Talking Wall takes shape.

I haven’t written on The Talking Wall. But if I did, I might offer some advice to those Mayan calendar watchers out there:

Life is short. Eat a hoagie.

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