PHILADELPHIA — 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,
Move spurred by immigration
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 though 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?"
The historically 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
Policy draws criticism, threats
Vento said his staff is glad to help non-native
speakers order in English and has never turned someone away because of a
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
Vento said he has gotten plenty of criticism and threats. One person
told him he hoped one his many neon signs flames out and burns the place
down, he said. But he said he plans to hold his ground.