The 66 year old Vento is the hands-on owner of a Philadelphia treasure, Geno’s Steaks, a legendary cheese steak joint in the middle of gritty, working-class South Philly. Day after day, month after month, year after year, for 40 years now, Joey and his crew have been serving up a delicious sandwich that is unique to the City of Brotherly Love. What pizza is to New York City, cheese steaks are to Philadelphia. And even though there’s competition and plenty of debate about who makes the best one, many people emphatically declare that Geno’s is the best place to get a Philly cheese steak in America.
Geno’s Steaks stands out on the corner of 9th and Passyunk like a brightly lit shrine to gastronomic delights, it’s bright orange exterior and illuminated signs paying tribute to Philly sports teams seemingly visible for miles. Joey likes to say, “If they turned the lights out at Geno’s, Philadelphia would go dark.”
Turning the lights out at Geno’s is a circumstance that some people at City Hall seem to think is a proper punishment for something that Joey has done. The only trouble is that most Americans think the guy deserves a ticker tape parade for what he’s done.
Joey Vento is a flag-waving, freedom-loving businessman. He works seven days a week putting in long, tough hours cutting the loaves of bread for the sandwiches, supervising his employees, and glad-handing the many customers who make a stop at Geno’s a part of their routine. Meeting Joey for the first time will make you feel like you’ve known him forever, the proverbial guy who never met a stranger.
But Joey has a simple request of his customers who line up outside Geno’s to await their turn: when ordering, please speak English. It’s a polite request that has landed him in a lot of hot water with the governmental bureaucrats who feel it’s their duty to patrol the politically correct waters of Philly.
Nearly a year ago, Joey put a little sticker on the window above the counter where people order their food. The sticker simply reflects his wish that people not hold up his line and make life difficult for the men and women who take the orders. It contains this message: “This is America. When ordering, please speak English.”
Perhaps never in the history of Philadelphia has a nine-inch sticker created such a commotion.
For over nine months, nothing was said, no one complained. Suddenly, almost mysteriously, the little sticker with the pro-English message became a big deal. First, the city’s Human Relations Commission served Joey with official papers, claiming that the sticker could be considered “discriminatory.” Later, one of the members of the commission told a newspaper reporter that the sticker should be removed so that people who don’t speak English won’t feel unwelcome. The word “discrimination” was bandied about.
And then the fun began.
You see, Joey Vento doesn’t work seven days a week because he has to. He does it because he loves the job, the people, and the city. When the bullies at City Hall started sending him certified letters demanding that he take down the sticker, he had a pretty blunt response. “I will NEVER take down that sticker. Never. Period, end of sentence.” In fact, Joey dug in his heels and said that he would rather let them board up his restaurant and they could all stand around and watch that bright, clean, orange building rot for all he cared. He just will not take down that sticker.
After I interviewed Joey over the phone earlier this week on my radio show, I immediately decided I had to go to South Philly and meet him in person. I wound up broadcasting my radio show on a card table right there on the corner of 9th and Passyunk smack dab in the middle of the line of people who were waiting to order a world-famous Geno’s cheese steak.
The customers in line all had the same perspective. To begin with, Joey doesn’t discriminate against anyone. It’s not in his nature to hurt people, and he certainly wouldn’t risk losing a sale, even to someone who can’t speak English. After all, this guy didn’t become self-made man because he’s a dope.
But to consider his civil, logical request as discrimination is obscene. A businessman doesn’t have the right to expect his customers to order a product in English? I would even argue that he should have the right to refuse service to someone who doesn’t have the courtesy to be able to say, “One cheese steak” in English. Isn’t, “No shoes, no shirt, no service” still in effect in most restaurants? But Joey doesn’t turn anyone away. He just can’t promise that the order will be correct. After all, there’s a big difference between the cheese wiz and the provolone that can come with the mouth-watering beef sandwich.
The Philadelphia Human Relations Commission picked the wrong guy to bully over such politically correct nonsense. And Joey Vento came along at the perfect time. When it comes to the English language debate in this country, he’s the hero we have been waiting for. He’s the guy who has the guts, the means, and the resolve to stand up for himself and his restaurant. Most of all, he is standing up for a belief that the vast majority of Americans have, that English should be the official, national language of America.
In fact, my visit and radio broadcast at Geno’s Steaks this week came on Flag Day. As I did the radio show sitting on that little card table provided by my station in Philly, WNTP-AM, American flags were everywhere. It was a fitting backdrop.
THIS IS AMERICA. PLEASE SPEAK ENGLISH.
It’s a message that should be everywhere. I’m going to do my best to spread it. My radio show proudly includes a charitable foundation called “Gallagher’s Army.” Since it’s inception a few years ago, we have sent over 70 thousand gift boxes of food and personal care items to our troops overseas. We have delivered truckloads of goods to their families back here at home. We’ve helped the families of slain police officers, rescued pets from the floodwaters of Katrina, and even paid for the tombstone of a woman who died when I found out that her grieving husband and sons couldn’t afford one. Now, it’s time to rally the troops of “Gallagher’s Army” to spread the message on that little sticker from Geno’s Steaks all across the United States of America.
We’re selling tee-shirts and little signs with the message, “This is America. Please speak English” on my website, http://www.mikeonline.com. All profits will go to “Gallagher’s Army” so that we can continue to do good things for people who deserve it.
If you appreciate the statement that has caused such a stir in Philadelphia and want to help a good cause, please go to http://www.mikeonline.com and get a shirt or sign. Let’s rally around a spunky little cheese steak joint in Philadelphia that has forgotten more about what it means to be an American than the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission could ever know.