Matt Rourke  /  AP
A sign telling customers they must order in English graces the counter Wednesday at Geno's Steaks in Philadelphia.
updated 6/12/2006 9:39:39 PM ET 2006-06-13T01:39:39

An English-only ordering policy at one of the city’s most famous cheesesteak joints drew a warning Monday from officials who threatened to file a discrimination complaint.

The city’s Commission on Human Relations planned to argue that the policy at Geno’s Steaks discourages customers of certain backgrounds from eating there, said Rachel Lawton, acting executive director.

Geno’s owner Joseph Vento posted two small signs at his shop in south Philadelphia proclaiming: “This is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING ’PLEASE SPEAK ENGLISH.”’

Lawton said that violates the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance, which prohibits discrimination in employment, public accommodation and housing.

“It’s discouraging patronage by non-English speaking customers because of their national origin or ancestry,” Lawton said.

Vento, 66, whose grandparents struggled to learn English after arriving from Sicily in the 1920s, said Monday that he is not discriminating and has no intention of giving in.

“I would say they would have to handcuff me and take me out because I’m not taking it down,” Vento said.

He said no customer had ever been turned away because of the policy.

Prompted by immigration debate
Vento said he posted the sign about six months ago because of concern over the debate on immigration reform and the increasing number of people in the area who cannot order in English. The historically Italian community has become more diverse as immigrants from Asia and Latin America have moved in.

Lawton said the restaurant would probably be served with the complaint on Monday or Tuesday. She did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press on Monday evening.

Lawton said the restaurant could be ordered to take down the signs or face fines. The dispute could end up in court.

“Let them do what they want to,” Vento said. “When it comes, then we’ll deal with it.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted Mary Catherine Roper, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union, who said Geno’s “has a right to express its opinion, however offensive. ... But there are specific limitations on places of public accommodation, because they are supposed to be available to everyone.”

A city councilman quoted in the paper said the signs were “divisive and mean-spirited.”

Cheesesteaks and ‘freedom fries’
When a non-English speaking customer showed up at the window a short time later, a clerk patiently coached him through the process. Eventually, both said “cheesesteak.”

Vento, a short, fiery man with a ninth-grade education, arms covered in tattoos and a large diamond ring in his ear, also sells “freedom fries” to protest France’s opposition to the Iraq war. He rails against Mumia Abu-Jamal, the man who was convicted of killing police Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981 and has become a cause celebre among some death penalty opponents. Memorials to Faulkner are posted at his shop.

Vento said he has gotten plenty of criticism and threats. One person told him they hoped one his many neon signs flames out and burns the place down, he said. But he said he plans to hold his ground.

Competitors are seizing on the controversy. Tony Luke’s issued a statement saying it welcomes all customers “whether or not they speak a ‘wit’ of English.”

And a manager at Pat’s, Kathy Smith, said of Geno’s English-only policy: “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life. I’d rather listen to the Spanish than the foul language of the college students.”

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