Bistec con queso? Not at Geno’s Steaks.
An English-only ordering policy has thrust one of Philadelphia’s best-known cheesesteak joints into the national immigration debate.
Situated in a South Philadelphia immigrant neighborhood, Geno’s — which together with its chief rival, Pat’s King of Steaks, forms the epicenter of an area described as “ground zero for cheesesteaks” — has posted small signs telling customers, “This Is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING ‘SPEAK ENGLISH.”’
“They don’t know how lucky they are. All we’re asking them to do is learn the English language,” said Geno’s owner Joseph Vento, 66. “We’re out to help these people, but they’ve got to help themselves, too.”
Vento, whose grandparents struggled to learn English after immigrating from Sicily in the 1920s, said he posted the sign about six months ago amid concerns over immigration reform and the increasing number of customers who could not order in English when they wanted Philly’s gooey, greasy specialty — fried steak, sliced or chopped, in a long roll, with cheese and fried onions.
Of course, it’s not as if native Philadelphians speak the King’s English either. A Philadelphian might order a cheesesteak by saying something like, “Yo, gimme a cheesesteak wit, will youse?” (“Wit,” or “with,” means with fried onions.) To which the counterman might reply: “Youse want fries widdat?”
Mexicans settle in Philly
The traditionally Italian community near Geno’s has become more diverse over the decades. Immigrants from Asia and Latin America have moved in, joining longtime residents and young professionals seeking reasonably priced rowhouses. In the past 10 years, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Mexican immigrants — many of them here illegally, community leaders say — have settled in South Philly.
Vento said his staff is glad to help non-native speakers order in English and has never turned someone away because of a language barrier.
But the policy has “really upset a lot of a people,” said Brad Baldia of Day Without An Immigrant, a coalition of immigrant groups. “For some people, I think we’re just going to say, ‘Le gusta Pat’s.”’
Juntos, a Hispanic neighborhood organization, said it plans to send people to Geno’s to try to order in Spanish and may pursue court action, depending on what happens.
“His grandparents encountered the same racism and the same xenophobia,” said Peter Bloom, the group’s director. “Why would he begin that process over again?”
Customers seem unfazed
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.
Customers placing orders on a recent morning seemed unfazed.
Angelica Marquez, 22 and originally from Puerto Rico, ordered in well-spoken English, but said some of her relatives struggle with the language. “They always come and just say ‘cheesesteak,”’ Marquez said, adding that the policy “bothers her some” but not enough to keep her away.
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 black 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.
Not the real Philly attitude
Those who market the city, often using images of Geno’s and other famous steak shops, are watching with concern.
“I certainly wouldn’t want a national audience to think it represented all of the wonderful cheesesteak makers in the whole city,” said Meryl Levitz, president and chief executive of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. “This isn’t representative of the Philadelphia attitude.”
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.”