“Social-distancing trays” -- each hoagie helping is wrapped -- and hot chicken sandwiches with broccoli rabe, roasted peppers, and sharp provolone helped PrimoHoagies’ 81 stores sell a record $55 million in sandwiches last year.

So declares chief executive Nicholas Papanier Jr. Despite the pandemic, he and his firm have been on a roll.

This year, Papanier plans to boost PrimoHoagies’ stores to over 100, including 14 new shops in North Jersey’s Italian American heartland and one in Moorestown, a bit closer to PrimoHoagies’ headquarters further south in Westville. Plus, new outposts in Pittsburgh (five stores) and Baltimore (one).

Why so busy in a virus year?

“We were 95% takeout to begin with,” Papanier told me. “And we already had DoorDash, UberEats, GrubHub delivering from almost all our stores. So we added curbside pickup, in suburban areas that allow it.

“And the focus of our business shifted. It was mostly lunch, hoagies, 11 to 2, but now two-thirds of the sales moved to dinnertime — hot sandwiches, homemade meatballs.”

The chain, which uses Thumann’s cold cuts and other local brands, started with Rich and Colleen Neigre’s sandwich shop on Ritner Street in South Philly in 1992. Nicholas Papanier Sr. opened the second store, in Wildwood, seven years later.

“It was a huge success, and they went partners, and Dad took the franchising ball and ran with it,” Nicholas Jr. says. Local operators keep a “family feeling” in the stores.

Nicholas Jr., who grew up in the business —- “I’ve been on the truck since I was 3 years old” — was named chief operating officer in 2017 and CEO two years later.

Papanier is spreading his hoagies into sub and hero country. He’s looking for more franchisees in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the Chesapeake region, and in South Carolina and Florida, where Primo’s also has one store each.

"Social-distancing tray:" small sandwiches sold for events are now wrapped at PrimoHoagies, where sales hit a record as diners fled restaurants and bought more takeout in 2020.
"Social-distancing tray:" small sandwiches sold for events are now wrapped at PrimoHoagies, where sales hit a record as diners fled restaurants and bought more takeout in 2020.

Killer cells

Penn-backed Carisma Therapeutics Inc. says it has raised another $47 million for its CAR-M cancer-fighting platform that engineers white blood cells to target and kill cancer tumors and boost patients’ immune response.

The money will fund a Phase 1 clinical trial at Penn and the University of North Carolina for Carisma’s most promising drug candidate, CT-0508, which uses what is called targeted chimeric antigen receptor macrophage (CAR-M) technology developed at Penn’s medical school by Carisma’s founders.

Carisma plans to boost employment to about 50 this year, up from 37 at present and 25 a year ago.

The new investment round was led by Symbiosis II, LLC, of Denver, plus new investors Solasta Ventures of South Korea and China-based Livzon Pharmaceutical Group Inc., and previous Carisma investors AbbVie Ventures, HealthCap, Wellington Partners, IP Group, TPG Biotech, Agent Capital, and MRL Ventures Fund. It brings the total invested in Carisma to $109 million.

“This additional funding will allow us to further advance our mission of evaluating the potential of engineered macrophages,” said Steven Kelly, Carisma’s CEO. He said SymBiosis in particular has experience helping bring cancer drugs toward patient use.

Macrophages generally are white blood cells that kill microorganisms. “This will be the first time an engineered macrophage will be used in a clinical trial,” said Michael Klichinsky, a Carisma cofounder who worked with Penn scientist Saar Gill and others to develop the technology.

Carisma (originally Carma) was backed in its early stages by the University of Pennsylvania’s $50 million biotech investment program.

Anti-cancer cash

Onconova Therapeutics, a publicly traded cancer drug developer based in Newtown, Bucks County, says it plans to raise $8.7 million next week in a share sale “for working capital and general corporate purposes.”