Philadelphia area: language and cheesesteak wars, cont'd

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Jun 16 13:43:21 UTC 2006

Restaurant owners: All welcome here

WEST CHESTER -- No one is hanging a sign in their window just yet, but the
sentiment from local restaurant owners, when asked about the controversy
swirling around Geno's Steaks in Philadelphia, was loud and clear: This is
WEST CHESTER: ALL CUSTOMERS WELCOME.  The debate over the importance of
immigrants learning English has been sparked by Geno's owner, Joseph Vento.
Vento, who is of Italian descent, has ignited controversy in his South
Philadelphia neighborhood and nationwide by placing two signs in his

Geno's, along with the nearby Pats King of Steaks, is widely considered the
premier locale for cheesesteaks in a city renowned for that fare. Many,
including the citys Commission on Human Relations, consider the policy of
serving only English-speaking customers discriminatory. When asked for
their reaction, several West Chester restaurant owners and managers voiced
a desire to serve the community -- regardless of a customers native
language. Jesse Martinez, a manager of Sabor Al Tropical Restaurant on
North Church Street, called the policy at Geno's of serving only
English-speaking guests unAmerican.

"This is the United States," he said. "Its supposed to be a melting pot,
isn't it?" Kerry Greco, who owns the Market Street Grill and, like Vento,
is of Italian descent, echoed Martinez's sentiment. "The Statue of Liberty
tells you to bring em all, doesn't she?" he asked. Restaurant owners here
said their flexibility comes not only from a respect for Americas
tradition of immigration, but from a desire to help the people they serve.
Bessie Bottos, owner of New Haven Pizza on South Church Street, said her
family will work with anyone who comes in the door.

"We try to help everybody, no matter what language they speak," she said.
A desire to serve people is part of the reason Greco is in this business,
he reported. "I like taking care of people," he said. "I would never put
the sign up, personally." Beyond both politics and goodwill is good
business sense, said Wally Vassil, of Wallys Weiner World, the hot dog
stand outside the West Chester courthouse. "You can speak any language you
want as long as you have U.S. money in your pocket," he quipped, pulling
out a dollar bill. Martinez rattled off a list of Sabor Al Tropicals
diverse clientele, spanning from vegetarians to Poles. "I don't think
anyone who provides anything to the community should be prejudiced against
any of their customers," he said.

In addition to voicing their personal policies towards non-English
speakers, West Chester restaurant owners speculated on Vento's motives. "It
could be a good marketing technique," Vassil observed. Vento's signs
certainly have drawn attention, and customers, to Geno's. Greco theorized
that Vento might be bitter about the changes that have taken place in
South Philadelphia in recent years. He noted that the neighborhood that
once housed primarily Italians now is home to a diverse spectrum of
immigrants, who bring with them an array of cultures and languages.
"Theres got to be something else behind it besides the language issue,"
Greco said.

Vassil also said he thinks a common language is not necessary in the food
industry. He said he has never had trouble communicating with non-English
speakers, either when filling orders or placing them. "When I go overseas,
they're always pretty good about it," he said. "You kinda point at stuff
and they get it." However the situation in South Philadelphia resolves,
West Chester diners can be confident that local restaurants will take
their orders -- and their money.

Daily Local News 2006

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