When Richard “Richie” Neigre and his wife, Coleen, opened their deli on Ritner Street in South Philly they had only a few sandwiches available. They weren’t expecting waves of people to flock to anything more than the grocery items.
Even then, Mr. Neigre — also known affectionately as “Primo” — would sit on the stoop of the modest store and encourage people to try his food.
“He would say to the people, ‘If you like it, spread it around. If you don’t, just don’t say anything,’” Coleen said through laughs.
Nearly 30 years later, that small deli has transformed into Primo Hoagies and has gone from a Philly staple to a nationwide chain.
“It turned into something we couldn’t even imagine,” Coleen said.
Leaving a legacy of good food, generosity, and an extreme devotion to his family, Mr. Neigre, 65, died unexpectedly Thursday, May 5, at his home in Sewell, Gloucester County. The family said it was most likely due to a blood clot from prior vascular problems.
“I’ve never been alone in my life since him,” his wife of nearly 43 years said through silent sobs.
The pair met when she was just 14 and Mr. Neigre, 16. He worked with her father, who was a lumber distributor at the time.
They got married June 9, 1979. His wife described a life of love and generosity.
When they were young and looking for a home in South Philly, they saw a model that Coleen loved but didn’t think they could afford. Mr. Neigre told her that within a year they would be living in that house.
Skeptically, she watched as he made good on that promise, and within a year he had built a replica of the house she fell in love with.
“He gave me a life that I never expected,” she said.
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Born Oct. 29, 1956, in South Philadelphia, Mr. Neigre was one of three sons of Mario and Emma Neigre. Their father died when Richard Neigre was just 12.
He grew up in a single-parent household without much money and didn’t finish high school, but he was always working and providing for his family.
Mr. Neigre and his wife welcomed their first daughter, Audrey, in 1982.
Coleen knew her husband wanted a boy, so when another daughter, Colette, was born, she asked him whether he was disappointed.
She remembers him turning to her and saying: “Did you see her? She’s beautiful. How could I be disappointed?”
Throughout their marriage, Mr. Neigre worked a number of jobs, including at the Philadelphia Journal, and Super Sneaker and All Star stores. From each boss, he learned more about business, and the couple opened their first deli in 1992.
Soon after the popularity of their sandwiches spread, they opened a second location in Center City in 1996. By 1999, they expanded to four stores, including one in South Jersey. About 2001, business was booming for the Neigres and they started franchising. Now, there are nearly 100 Primo Hoagies around the country.
And it’s still a family business. Daughters Colette Faia and Audrey Fabrizzio operate different stores in the South Philly and South Jersey area. Their husbands, nephews, uncles, and others joined the business over the years as Mr. Neigre and his wife got older and the business grew.
“My husband was committed to quality, bread, and making different things that you never had before,” Coleen said. “He made concoctions and we would taste it and we would say, ‘Does this seem like it’s good together?’ Like he made sandwiches that people never heard of.”
All the while, Mr. Neigre’s generosity was shown to anyone and everyone around. Once he started to make money off his business, he would give help to many.
“He always made sure that everyone that he knew had everything they needed. Always. It wasn’t even a question,” Faia said.
She remembered her father as someone who loved music — especially Prince and the Rolling Stones — and always had his own timeline for doing things.
It wasn’t surprising to see him eating dinner at midnight or arriving Tuesday when he said he was visiting on a Sunday.
One of her favorite memories of her father was her 16th birthday. He’d rented out a theater for their entire family for the premiere of the first Spider-Man movie in 2002. As they walked into the theater, he pointed out a car that matched the one she’d been wanting for a long time.
“He looks at me and goes, ‘Colette, isn’t that the car you want?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it is.’ He said, ‘Happy birthday,’ and handed me the keys,” she said. She had only her permit, but her father wanted her to learn how to drive on the car she would be using daily.
“That’s how smart he was,” she said.
For Fabrizzio, losing her father also meant losing her best friend.
“We were almost the same person,” she said. “I learned everything from him.”
In addition to his wife and daughters, Mr. Neigre is survived by a brother, Joseph; four grandchildren; and other relatives. A brother, Mario, died previously.
Visitation will be Thursday, May 12, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Egizi Funeral Home, 119 Ganttown Road, Washington Township, Gloucester County. A Funeral Mass will be Friday, May 13, at 11 a.m., at St. Monica Roman Catholic Church, 2422 S. 17th St., Philadelphia.
Donations may be made to Autism Speaks at www.autismspeaks.org.