Whether the Phillies win or lose the World Series, one hometown business that already hit it out of the park this year is Geno’s Steaks of South Philadelphia.
Joe Vento, 70, the owner and founder of Geno’s, started his business in 1966 with a $2,000 investment. After opening, Vento had only $6 left to his name. Today, Geno’s sells close to 750,000 cheese steaks per year.
Geno’s is an iconic emblem of South Philly, which has been called the Las Vegas of Philadelphia given the neon signs that illuminate the famous establishment. The restaurant also resides directly across the street from its established competitor, Pat’s.
“The bottom line is you have to love what you do,” said Vento. “I love it and wouldn’t trade it in for anything. I can’t wait to come home to get up again and come back to work.”
Q: How is business in this economy?
Vento: We are very fortunate because we a have a product that for $10 you can get a meal. Most restaurants are getting hurt. I am fortunate for $10 you can get a soda and a steak -- so I think that is why a place like mine survives.
We are actually increasing business. I am breaking all kinds of [sales] records. There has been no downside whatsoever, only upside … I would say that we are up 20 percent for 2009, at least. I am very fortunate. The man upstairs takes care of me.
Q: Have you been forced to raise prices?
Vento: Even though our mayor just added a 1 percent sales tax on our product, I eat that price and I do not pass it on to the consumer. I may be forced [to] raise prices [eventually], but at this point I am eating the 1 percent sales tax.
Q: How has the Phillies' run in the World Series impacted your business?
Vento: Naturally, any event in the city, it helps you. The Yankees playing the Phillies helps you even more. [The series] is drawing a lot of New Yorkers, and then there is the regular fan base of the Phillies. My place is a congregation of everything, and we are open 24/7. I am in the intersection with my competitor [Pat’s]. Sunday was a very strong day, people hung out later because [the Eagles] won.
Q: How have things changed since you first opened?
Vento: In 1966, I started with a $2,000 investment. When I opened up, I had $6 to my name. The same cheese steak today that is $8 was 45 cents at that time. I have never changed the quality. I have just perfected that. What makes me better, than my closest competitor is that we are more efficient.
Q: How did you start your business with an established competitor in place?
Vento: Pat’s has been there since the 1920’s. I was going up against the “King of Steaks.” I always say if he was all that big—how did I get that big. I give him the credit for the steaks but I perfected it. It is a friendly rivalry. There is no animosity there.
That is one thing, between me and my competitor. We made the Philly cheese steak famous. Whether they go to Pat’s or Geno’s, people want to try it for themselves.
I bucked all the odds. I did the American dream and that is why I am so proud to be an American.
Q: You’ve had a lot of attention for posting a sign asking people to order in English. What has the fallout been?
Vento: The Philadelphia Human Relations Commission took me to court over the sign that said, “This is America, when ordering speak English.”
I was making a political statement. They said it was very offensive to non-speaking English people.
I won the case [after] 2 years, and they keep bringing it up. I am having fun ... I never believed I said or did anything wrong to begin with. All they did was make me stronger when they came after me. I decided I would close the store down before I take that sign down.
The sign is about 3-and-a-half inches by 8 inches. It made me famous across the country. I sign autographs on a daily basis. How can I not love that?