New Philly food and drink

5 years after ditching a racist name, cheesesteak icon Joe’s Steaks is ready to expand again

Northeast Philly customers have a hard time forgiving the swap from “Chink’s”

Joe Groh hold's a Joe's Steaks cheesesteak (American with onions)

Joe Groh hold's a Joe's Steaks cheesesteak (American with onions)

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
danya

File under no good deed goes unpunished: For the past five years, not a day has passed where a customer didn’t give Joe Groh grief for changing his shop’s name to something that wasn’t a racist slur.

It happened this past Friday. “Hey Joe,” a man shouted out, between bites of cheesesteak in a booth at the Torresdale Avenue spot, “Donald Trump just called.”

“Oh really,” Groh tossed back, ready for banter from his place behind the grill. “What’d he say?”

“He said you oughta change the name back to Chink’s!”

That’s friendlier than some. Like the little old women who, every time she comes in, tells Groh, “You make me sick!” in a voice that drips with octogenarian venom. Then there’s the customers like the woman who ordered a sandwich, glanced at it, then pushed it away, saying, “This isn’t a Chink’s steak!” before walking out the door.

These complaints are a daily occurrence at Joe’s Steaks in Northeast Philly, said Groh, who now also runs a second outpost in Fishtown. “They get even more mad when I tell them it was my decision.”

It was April 1, 2013, when Groh swapped the sign reading “Chink’s” — which had hung above the iconic cheesesteak joint since it opened in 1949 — for one that said “Joe’s.”

Samuel 'Chink' Sherman outside his cheesesteak shop on Torresdale Avenue

Samuel 'Chink' Sherman outside his cheesesteak shop on Torresdale Avenue

Joe's Steaks

Many Philadelphians applauded the move, which had been a long time coming. A decade earlier, several Asian American groups had organized a concerted effort to force the removal of the Chink’s name. The Philadelphia Bar Association even adopted a public resolution criticizing it.

Back then, Groh wasn’t ready. He’d worked at the shop since he was 16 years old, and had taken over operations in 1997. But he’d been very close with the store’s previous owner, Samuel Sherman, whose own appearance — Sherman apparently had almond-shaped eyes — was the source of the nickname. So even though Groh actually ended up in court over it once or twice, he stood his ground on keeping the Chink’s name. (“One of the reasons Sam chose that name is because he didn’t want people to realize he was Jewish,” Groh explained.)

But as time passed, Groh, now 55, came to a new conclusion. Not only was having a racial slur as a brand name morally unacceptable, he realized, it was also bad business.

Nowadays, sales are booming at Joe’s Steaks’ second location at the corner of Frankford and Girard, but when Groh first went searching for real estate in Fishtown, he was turned away repeatedly.

One of his first attempted leases was the space that’s now home to Kensington Quarters, Groh recounted. After a good preliminary visit, he got a call from the landlord.

“Wait, you’re from Chink’s?” the building owner told him. “Forget it. I don’t want my place associated with that name.”

Joe Groh at his Fishtown shop

Joe Groh at his Fishtown shop

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

After running into that situation multiple times, Groh decided it might be a good time to hire a PR firm. He rang one up…and promptly got turned down.

“No way, we’re not working with a business called ‘Chink’s,’” public relations pro Kylie Flett remembers saying. Eventually, however, she did take Groh on as a client, and helped him spearhead the name change. Which brought the wrath of the aggrieved Northeast Philly originalists down on her head, too — someone even wrote letters to her alma mater La Salle, imploring the university to revoke her degree.

Despite the continued backlash, which Groh estimates is perpetrated by around 20 percent of customers at the Wissinoming shop, Joe’s Steaks remains busy at both locations.

After all, the steaks themselves have never changed. They’re made with high-quality fresh ribeye that’s been hand-trimmed, so there’s no chance of biting into chewy gristle. The meat is only very lightly chopped as it frizzles on the grill — “We don’t have to chop it up fine to hide things” — and then cheese is laid over the top, before the package is slid inside a soft Liscio’s bun.

'If I could cook every single steak we serve, I would,' says Groh

'If I could cook every single steak we serve, I would,' says Groh

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Success on Frankford Avenue has translated to increased sales on Torresdale Avenue, which is now open seven days a week. It’s sometimes busy enough that Groh transfers employees from Fishtown — a move that causes additional distress among the disgruntled Wissinoming clientele.

“I don’t want her to make my milkshake,” one customer recently griped, pointing at a Latina staffer. “Don’t let him touch my cheesesteak,” another said, nodding his head toward a black grill cook.

But Groh defends his workers, and asks people who make those kinds of comments to leave the premises.

And at the Fishtown corner, where there are vegan and gluten-free options alongside the classics, Joe’s Steaks is rocking. It sells an average of 300 to 400 sandwiches on a weekend day, with numbers spiking up to 750 or more on a busy Saturday night.

Which has Groh again thinking of expanding.

“I would love to,” he said on Friday, noting he’s looked at several potential spaces already. “I think it’s time. I would actively love to open a new one — this year.”

Where will the next Joe’s-not-Chink’s Steaks be? Old City is a possibility, but Groh is willing to wait as long as he needs for the right location. At least he doesn’t have to worry about being turned away because of the name.