Last fall, rumors of Pete Davidson’s newfound romance began to circulate. Blurry photos sparked saucy theories. Unnamed sources and anonymous friends provided critical intel for gossip columnists. But it wasn’t until a night in mid-November last year when Pete Davidson emerged from Los Angeles celebrity haunt Giorgio Baldi holding hands with Kim Kardashian that the news became public. Yes, the rumors were true: Pete Davidson loves the merch from LA sandwich shop Uncle Paulie’s.
“It was like the biggest photo in the world that day,” Uncle Paulie’s co-founder Paul James told me. He’s not quite exaggerating.Onlookers immediately identified a hickey on Davidson’s neck, and in the following days gossip outlets focused in on every detail from the photo. Davidson’s mud-colored hat with cursive script spelling out “Uncle Paulie’s,” meanwhile, pulled James into the vortex. “We were getting gossip outlets and people DMing us like, ‘Tell us more!’” he said. James was as much in the dark about the photo as everyone else but the image sent something bigger into motion. With the help of Pete Davidson, Uncle Paulie’s went from friendly sub shop slinging T-shirts to bona fide always-sold-out streetwear brand.
James opened Uncle Paulie’s on LA’s Beverly Boulevard in 2017, hoping to recreate the sandwich shops he frequented growing up in Queens, New York. In LA, he said, your coffee order doesn’t even come with a side of eye contact. He missed the experience of walking “into a deli and the guy behind the counter knows your name and they know your order and ask how your wife and kid’s doing,” James said.
Moving cold cuts and sandwiches has always been Uncle Paulie’s primary goal, but he’d always planned to sell merch, too. James wanted a design that reminded him of the shirts, complete with contact info, that local plumbers and tow truck operators would wear in his neighborhood while he was growing up. He entrusted his cofounder, luxe streetwear designer and sneaker Jon Buscemi, with quality control. The pair worked to find a supplier who would make tees locally in Los Angeles. “We put a little extra love into it than just printing on some random blanks,” James said.
Since the start, James and Buscemi have treated merch as a serious enterprise. Over the years, the sandwich shop rang up collaborations with Lacoste and Carhartt WIP. The result is a merch shop that moves hats and graphic tees with streetwear-drop efficiency. “As soon as we have the hats, they’re gone. Right now I have none,” James said. “I’m waiting for a shipment to come. They fly off the shelves.” And even before Davidson, the shop carved out an interesting role as a little slice of Italian-Americana for those abroad. The shop frequently ships its hats to customers in Japan. The merch is successful enough that it’s become a “whole other business,” James says