Philly food and drink scene

Meet the women of Philadelphia’s cheesesteak scene: The shops may be named for men, but these power players mean business

“Everyone you deal with is male,” said one woman in the industry. “That’s just all there is.”

Vickie Bucci of John's Roast Pork

Vickie Bucci of John's Roast Pork

Emma Lee / WHYY
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What’s your favorite cheesesteak spot in Philadelphia?

Might it be John’s, Jim’s, or Joe’s? Is it Pat’s, Geno’s, or Steve’s? How about Tony Luke’s? Barry’s? Max’s? George’s?

See a pattern?

Philly is full of steak shops bearing men’s names. These are the names that get all the fame — that locals share with newcomers or tourists, that come up on Google. And women are not included.

That doesn’t mean women aren’t involved with the business of creating Philly’s best-known sandwich. In fact, many shops across the city depend on women to keep things running. They handle finances, they do PR, they manage staff — and even make the sandwiches.

“There definitely is a place for women in this business,” Wendy McGuinn of Barry’s Steaks in Roxborough told Billy Penn. “And I think we’re important … you need that balance.”

The “[insert man’s name here]’s Steaks” construction and its derivatives certainly aren’t the only cheesesteak shop monikers.

Some proprietors use a last name instead (think Dalessandro’s in Northwest Philly), while others come up with something different altogether (Ishkabibble’s on South Street, for example). But there’s no denying the established pattern. An internet search yielded over 20 cheesesteak businesses named after men within city limits.

Billy Penn spoke with five women in the cheesesteak biz in Philadelphia — all at shops named after men — including some with decades of experience.

Through the generations, juggling family life and shop life

The history of the cheesesteak, by most accounts, can be traced back to South Philly in the 1930s, when — according to urban legend — hot dog seller Pat Olivieri took a cabbie’s suggestion to put cooked meat from a nearby butcher onto a roll. Pat’s King of Steaks has stayed in the family, going from Pat and brother Harry to Harry’s son Frank, and then to Frank’s son Frankie, the current proprietor.

You’ll hear plenty more stories about fathers and sons if you dive into Philly’s cheesesteak history, but the women of the founding families have also been instrumental in keeping the business alive.

“If ever there was a business that owes [its] success to women, it is John’s Roast Pork,” third-generation proprietor John Bucci Jr. wrote in an email to Billy Penn.

Vonda Bucci started managing the business side of things at John’s Roast Pork in the late 1950s or early 1960s, when her husband John Bucci Sr. took over the business from his father, Domenico Bucci, who started it in 1930.

It was Vonda who pestered a Florida-based railroad company to be able to buy the piece of land where John’s Roast Pork stands, she said, and she still owns the triangular parcel to this day.

“At the time, they weren’t selling any ground. But I bothered them. I used to call them twice a week,” Vonda Bucci said. “I would call and say, are you sure you don’t want to sell? … I could use this better than you do.”

When her husband got sick in the late 1980s, Bucci ran the business with her son John Jr. (It was around then that cheesesteaks got added to the menu.) John Sr. passed away in 1991, and Vonda and John Jr. continued the business together.

Now 89 years old, she still does bookkeeping for the family-run business, located in South Philly near the Delaware River.

And it’s not just Vonda anymore: women from multiple generations of the Bucci family have kept the business running, especially during hard times.

Vickie Bucci of John's Roast Pork

Vickie Bucci of John's Roast Pork

Emma Lee / WHYY

John Jr.’s wife, Vickie Bucci, works 40 to 50 hours per week at the shop, making sandwiches and overseeing employees. Originally, she was just supposed to lend a hand for a few days in 2004, she said — but eventually, things ended up “snowballing” into a full-time role that she takes a lot of pride in.

Also instrumental to the success of John’s Roast Pork, according to John Jr., have been his niece — who moved around her college class schedule to help the business when John Jr. needed a bone marrow transplant in the 2000s — and his sister, who helped with managing the business’s finances during the early days of the COVID pandemic and oversaw a set of building renovations.

At Barry’s Steaks in Roxborough, a younger business that’s been around since 1989, Wendy McGuinn works alongside husband Barry and two of their children. For her, family and the shop go hand-in-hand.

She’s been in the business almost as long as she’s been married, she said. When she was 8 months pregnant, she and Barry, who used to work a mile away at Dalessandro’s Steaks, decided to launch their own place.

McGuinn returned to work at the shop five days after giving birth, and for years she and Barry navigated raising their kids and running the business.

“You’ve got a lot of balls in the air, and you’re doing a lot of juggling,” she said. “The wash has to get done, and somebody has to eat, somebody has to go to the grocery store, so and so has to go to the doctor’s, somebody needs new sneakers … And you’re doing this.”

Barry's Steaks in Roxborough was co-founded by its namesake and his wife, Wendy McGuinn

Barry's Steaks in Roxborough was co-founded by its namesake and his wife, Wendy McGuinn

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Family life and life at Barry’s have always been intertwined for McGuinn, and that still continues to be true 33 years later.

Although Wendy wouldn’t call the business “generational” at this point, daughter Rose and son Patrick have both been working at the sandwich shop for years. Her son’s future wife has also started helping out too, Wendy said, managing the shop’s social media accounts.

Integral to making it all possible — and keeping it fresh

The women who spoke with Billy Penn all have something in common: in various roles, they’ve all been important to shaping how their business operates or is seen today.

At Joe’s Steaks and Soda Shop in Fishtown, manager Stefanilee Ryan was a crucial part of getting the location off the ground.

Ryan started working for the business’s original (but now shuttered) location in Northeast Philly 18 years ago, when she was a student in community college. By the time she completed a business degree, she’d held positions waiting tables, making drinks, and working the grill, and had worked her way up to manager at the Torresdale Avenue shop.

In that position, she pushed for some changes to the shop’s then-limited menu, including more types of cheese, expanded topping offerings, and the addition of fries. After a while, Ryan felt like she might outgrow her role, but she decided to stay on when owner Joe Groh got serious about opening up a second storefront in Fishtown.

After helping make it happen, she’s now working as general manager, coordinating staffing, managing the books, and filling in when needed.

“That was like my child,” Ryan said of the now-popular shop at Frankford and Girard. “It was like my baby … for the first year, I was working 60, 70 hours a week … I really wanted to succeed, I wanted the store to succeed, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this.”

A cheesesteak at Joe's Steaks, the shop location that was particial conceived and is general managed by Stefanielee Ryan

A cheesesteak at Joe's Steaks, the shop location that was particial conceived and is general managed by Stefanilee Ryan

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Over at Barry’s Steaks in Roxborough, McGuinn sees herself as a diplomat and a community liaison. Some notable parts of her job, she said, are answering phones, resolving conflicts, showing empathy toward younger employees, and building relationships with regulars.

Some customers, McGuinn said, just call her “Mrs. Barry.”

At Pat’s, Nancy Schure Olivieri manages the almost 100-year-old business’s public relations and social media presence, a role she took on after leaving the real estate business 6 years ago. She’s married to the current owner, Frank Enrico Olivieri.

In addition to managing a Facebook page with 39k likes, Instagram account with 20k followers, and Twitter with 7k followers, Schure Olivieri also organizes events and helps run the “Spread the Wiz” Foundation, which brings nutritional programming to some local schools.

She created a viral moment back in July, when then-Senate candidate Mehmet Oz stopped by Cheesesteak Vegas to complain about inflation.

The Passyunk Avenue cheesesteak spot’s response to Oz’s comment that inflation was making things more difficult for places like Pat’s and Geno’s: “Do you even live in Pa? And can you spell the town you live in? 😂.”

Schure Olivieri tweeted out the response to Oz on her birthday, after Olivieri gave her the green light to say whatever she wanted. Her response garnered 22.8k likes, 2.7k retweets, and plenty of online buzz.

“It was awesome,” she told Billy Penn. “He’s never coming back here, I don’t think.”

Nancy Schure Olivieri outside Pat's King of Steaks, where she manages PR and social media

Nancy Schure Olivieri outside Pat's King of Steaks, where she manages PR and social media

Michael Pangilinan Photography

‘It’s always about, you know, the guys’

Most of the women who spoke with Billy Penn weren’t sure why so many Philadelphia cheesesteak places are named after guys — but several suggested it has to do with the era when many of the most popular spots came to be, a time when female entrepreneurs were much less common in any industry at all.

“If the business is 90 years old, then obviously 90 years ago, women were not as equal as men,” said Schure Olivieri of Pat’s.

From there, some of the women guessed, the pattern might have just stuck.

Men are often still at the forefront — most women BP spoke to couldn’t think of fellow women working in the cheesesteak business off the top of their heads, other than people who worked at their own shops.

A recent survey by the National Restaurant Association found that entry-level food service positions are dominated by women, the website Restaurant Business reported — but senior-level employees are more likely to be men.

“It’s never about us,” said Wendy McGuinn of Barry’s. “It’s always about them. It’s always about, you know, the guys.”

In the cheesesteak world, there are stereotypes about what exactly it is women “should” be doing. One example: it’s usually a man behind the grill, McGuinn said, both at Barry’s and from what she’s seen for the most part at other cheesesteak shops too. “Like being an auto mechanic,” she said, it just seems like it should be a guy thing — though there’s “no reason” a woman couldn’t do it, she added.

Back in the 2000s, Vonda Bucci and John Bucci Jr. recalled, a college student produced a documentary called “This Is My Cheesesteak,” about Philly steak shop entrepreneurs. The film, created by Ben Daniels, included scenes at some of the city’s most popular cheesesteak locations, featuring interviews with the owners.

Among the group — people from Pat’s, Geno’s, Jim’s, John’s, Tony Luke’s, and Starr Restaurants — Vonda Bucci stood out. “I was the only woman there,” she told Billy Penn, “but I knew them all.”

Vonda Bucci, center, is the sole woman among the group of steak shop owners at the premiere of 'This Is My Cheesesteak'

Vonda Bucci, center, is the sole woman among the group of steak shop owners at the premiere of 'This Is My Cheesesteak'

Courtesy John Bucci Jr.

Daughter-in-law Vickie Bucci credited Vonda for teaching her a lot and said she admires her for working in such a male-dominated business, beginning in an era when that wasn’t typical.

“She did these things when women weren’t really, basically in that kind of field,” Vickie Bucci said. “You know what I mean? And she’s tough. Like she didn’t take anything from the guys. She held her ground, and it made her strong.”

Even today, being in the cheesesteak business often means working with a lot of men, per Wendy McGuinn of Barry’s.

“Everyone you deal with is male,” she said. “Your meat guy, your bread guy, the guys down the restaurant depot, you know, your produce guy. They’re all guys … And that’s just all there is.”

At Joe’s, per manager Stefanilee Ryan, a lot of workers on the day shift are women, and customers sometimes make comments about it.

“Customers love seeing women behind the grill,” Ryan said. “They always say … you girls make it better than any of the other guys. We hear that a lot.”