Who invented the cheesesteak?

Any Philadelphian worth their Whiz knows the answer is Pat Olivieri, founder of Pat’s King of Steaks. And most also know the origin story behind the culinary epiphany, which goes something like this:

Pat was running a hot dog cart in South Philly. One day, tired of eating franks every day for lunch, he decided to cook up some beef from a nearby butcher instead. A passing cab driver caught a whiff of the griddled meat, and asked for a bite. He was impressed. “Forget about the hot dogs,” the taximan supposedly said. “You should start selling these!”

The tale has been repeated so many times that it’s become urban legend.

Did the sandwich that would become synonymous with the city really come about at the urging of a cab driver?

Even Frankie Olivier Jr., Pat’s grandnephew and current owner of Pat’s Steaks, has a hard time separating the story he’s read so many places from what might have actually happened. It’s understandable, because this was way back in 1930 — anyone who was an adult back then would be over 100 years old by now.

But there’s one person who was certain of how it all went down, and he made sure all his descendants knew it, too.

That man is Dave Kohn. His inside track to the truth? He was the cab driver, the guy with the golden palate, the one who tasted Pat’s creation and knew it was good enough to base a business around.

‘You should put this on a roll’

Kohn died in 1992. But close members of his family are still very much alive.

“The story is well known to everybody in my family,” says Diane Schwartz, Kohn’s grandniece. “Uncle Dave would bring it up all the time. He was just a people person, he loved to talk.”

Schwartz’s 86-year-old father, Ken Frank, was even closer to Dave, who he remembers as “everyone’s favorite uncle.” He probably first heard the anecdote as a little kid when his uncle took him to get a cheesesteak for lunch, he says. “My uncle loved driving — so he would always take us around.”

The version Ken Frank heard growing up hews pretty close to lore.

“Uncle Dave got a lot of hot dogs at the stand; he would go there almost every day. One time, Pat was grilling some meat, and says to my uncle, ‘Taste this.’ ‘That’s fantastic,’ my uncle says. ‘You should put this on a roll.’”

From driver to VP

Left: Ken Frank and uncle Dave Kohn; Right: Kohn and grandniece Diane Schwartz
Left: Ken Frank and uncle Dave Kohn; Right: Kohn and grandniece Diane Schwartz

Dave Kohn wasn’t just any cab driver. Though he started at the bottom — he was just a 21-year-old hack when the cheesesteak affair happened — he eventually worked his way up to vice president of the Yellow Cab Company of Philadelphia.

In between, he gained a reputation as a maintenance expert, then a safety fanatic. “Workplace safety was really his thing,” Schwartz says.

As safety director of Yellow Cab, he once ran a famous test. He set up a race that pitted two cabs traveling down Chestnut Street from 63rd to Broad. One would follow all the speed limit rules and not run any yellow lights, and the other would be relatively reckless — i.e. drive the way many taximen usually did. The result? Both cabs arrived at the same time.

Ken Frank actually worked for his uncle’s company one summer during high school, as a starter posted right outside the former Inquirer building on North Broad.

The Manilow connection

So did Kohn ever get any credit for his suggestion? Not other than knowing the role he played, which his relatives say was plenty.

“He was never looking for fame or notoriety,” Schwartz says. In fact, her family had no connection with Pat’s — other than heading there for a snack sometimes — until she and Frankie Olivieri bumped into each other, entirely serendipitously.

Last summer, Schwartz was having lunch at Famous 4th Street Deli in Queen Village. She’d seen Barry Manilow at the Wells Fargo Center the night before, and was gushing about his performance. The folks at the next table had also been there, and they started sharing opinions and memories from the show.

When the gentleman from the other table handed Schwartz his card, her eyes lit up. “Oh!” she said. “You’re with Pat’s?”

“I am Pat’s!” said Olivieri, who admits to being an unabashed Manilow fan. “Pat was my grand-uncle.”

“Well then,” Schwartz said with a smile, “I bet you’ve heard of my grand-uncle, too.”

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...