John's Roast Pork: Big stories from a small shack

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John Bucci outside John's Roast Pork.

We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.

John Bucci Jr., the third-generation proprietor of John’s Roast Pork, never planned to take over the family business, but when his father, John Sr., was stricken with lung cancer, he left college to help his mother run the shop.

Eventually - especially after he got cancer himself - he realized sandwiches were his true calling.

The stand-alone shack that sits on Snyder Avenue like a beacon of savory satisfaction on a small triangle between the railroad tracks and a Columbus Boulevard shopping plaza wasn’t always the juggernaut it is today. When Bucci’s grandfather opened it in the 1930s, it was a tiny wooden shanty that fit no more than two or three people.

The story goes that Italian immigrant Dominico Bucci arrived on Ellis Island in 1918 with nothing but the clothes on his back. After he landed in Philadelphia, he started a catering business of sorts, running it out of his South Philly home. He would also park a bus at Delaware Avenue and Reed Street and sell sandwiches to the stevedores and truck drivers working the busy port.

That breakfast and lunch business turned out to be good, so Dominico leased a nearby triangle of land from B&O Railroad and added a permanent counter. Everybody called it “the Pork Shack” (or more often than not, just “the Shack”) and it served a small group of regulars made up of dockworkers, cab drivers, police, and firefighters.

In the early ‘60s, Domenico and his wife both fell ill, and their youngest son John stepped in to care for them - and their luncheonette. John Bucci Sr. didn’t have much of a mind for business - he was a stellar auto mechanic who worked for Potamkin and fixed tanks in the Korean War - but his wife, Vonda, did, and she joined him at the shop. The elder Buccis died in the late ‘60s, six months apart from each other.

After fending off a court fight from an older brother - who never worked in the shop but felt he was owed a piece - John and Vonda dug in. They brought on Vonda’s brother Ferruccio “Ferry” Ciccotelli as partner. He was a carpenter, so with his help in 1967 they demolished the original hut and replaced it with a slightly larger structure - the heart of which is still standing today. For the first time, the Pork Shack had a working range and grill, and food began to be prepared on site.

After two decades of steady, if subdued, business, the Buccis were approached by the Goldenberg Group. The developers were planning Snyder Plaza across the street, and they offered the sandwich business the chance to move into what would become the area’s first shopping center. The deal had the Buccis handing over 18 percent of gross revenue to their landlords, on top of what the Buccis believed was exorbitant rent. They declined. 

Right after that, John Sr. got sick, and Vonda went to her son with an offer: If you want to leave school and do this with me, I’ll get a loan from a relative and fix the place up a bit. John Jr. agreed. A back room with a walk-in was built, and a sign with a pink pig declaring “John’s Roast Pork” was put up. In 1987, after three months of construction, John Jr. assumed his place behind the grill. His father died four years later.

He's been there since, except for one life-changing period.

On a recent March morning after one of his busiest weekends in history, Bucci, 50, sat at a picnic table outside his shop described how The Inquirer’s Craig LaBan discovered his sandwiches and made them famous, how his own fight with leukemia turned him into a better person, and why we’ll never see a second John’s Roast Pork location.

Your first memory of this place?

Just always getting in the way. And [annoying] my dad off when I would say, “How many sandwiches do you sell? What sells the best?” It’s the same questions people ask me today, actually, and I can finally answer them thanks to the new [point-of-sale] system we installed. Nowadays we sell equal amounts of cheesesteaks and roast porks. It’s one-to-one.

Was your dad always here?

He was, even though my mom was really the brains behind it. His famous line to her was, "Don't ever come to me and tell me we're broke. We should always have money." OK, sure. But he was the hardest-working guy. Five days a week he would be here at 4 in the morning. We officially opened at 5, but he would open at 4:30 if he was ready. We were barely making a living. 

You don’t open at 5 anymore?

That was the first thing I changed when I took over! It went to 6:45 - know why? Because I would come in and listen to Howard Stern when I was setting up and his first commercial break was at 6:45.

You took over when your dad got sick

Yeah. It wasn’t an easy choice. I was at St. Joe’s, where I had a half-academic scholarship, and I had just pulled my grades up to a 3.0. I was used to being good at school; at Saint John Neumann I was president of the National Honor Society and graduated fourth in my class. But in college, everyone else was also smart. My first semester there was a disaster - I had a 1.86. So here I am, in my third year, finally with a B average, and it’s like, now you’re telling me you want me to quit?

How did you make the decision?

I went to my counselor - I wish I remembered his name, because he changed my life - and he asked, “Well, is your family’s business established?” I told him it wasn’t Pat’s or Geno’s or anything, but it had been there since 1930. His advice was to go for it, because I could always come back to school and finish later. When I started working at the shop, I realized, hey, I’m really good at this.

At making pork? 

Not so much at preparing the meat, but at making the sandwiches. I was just a natural. I loved it! What I didn’t like much was dealing with the people. It was a very different crowd - all blue-collar workers. They were angry men, and they wanted their friggin’ lunch NOW. It was mostly just pork and beef and meatballs. We did have a nice breakfast trade, too, because this was pre-Dunkin’ Donuts, pre-Starbucks. We used to go through 12, 13 urns of coffee and 16 dozen donuts a day. 

So you didn’t sell cheesesteaks? 

We did, just not that many. When Tony Luke’s opened ... in ‘91 or so, we started selling a few more. We were scared it would really hurt our business, but I think it helped. Because people would go there and say, “Yeah, this is good, but I also heard about this other place down the road called John’s, let’s try it.” 

When did your cheesesteaks really take off?

It all started with the Inquirer article “The Ultimate Cheesesteak” in 2001. It was four kids from Lower Merion High School, and they came in and said their senior project was to find the best cheesesteak. They had their rulers, they were weighing stuff - they were all from well-to-do families. I had no idea they were working with the Inquirer. 

But they were?

Yes. With Craig LaBan, which carries a lot of weight. I didn’t realize! So the article comes out on August 11, 2001, over the weekend, when we were closed. That Sunday, Craig calls me and he’s like, "I hope you ordered extra bread for Monday." And I'm like, gosh, this guy's kind of full of himself isn’t he? But he was right. 

You were busy?

I’m getting ready to open, and I see all these people milling around outside. I’m like, what’s going on, this isn’t my normal five people who show up in the morning! It really changed our lives, because after Craig wrote about us, other people did, too. In 2008, Glen Macnow ran a cheesesteak contest, and we won that, too. I actually cried when we won, and Glen says, “Oh, he’s crying over a cheesesteak.” But what he didn’t know is, it was the day before my bone-marrow transplant.

When did you find out you had leukemia?

It was 2006. I was playing a lot of racquetball and my shoulder hurts so I go into the doctor, who was a friend of mine, for a cortisone shot. I literally have one foot out the door and his office manager - Victoria, who’s now my wife - says, "Why don't you get a blood test, just to see how your cholesterol is?" I'd never had a blood test. He calls two weeks later and says, "Your white blood-cell count is 77,000." I told him, "I don't know what that means. I'm a sandwich maker." He says it means either I have a severe infection or the early stages of leukemia.

So you needed a bone marrow transplant?

Not right away. We were treating it with oral chemotherapy - I just swallowed pills in the morning - and it stabilized my blood. But then I started having seizures, and the doctors told me it meant I needed to get a donor right away. I found one pretty quickly. Under the guidelines of the donor bank, I can’t ever meet him. I asked why, and they told me, "Say this guy runs on hard times and he comes in and says, 'I saved your life, I need $10,000.’ What are you going to do?'" 

So that’s why I’m a spokesperson for [national bone marrow transplantation nonprofit] Be the Match. My friend said, “If you really want to thank him, just help others by using your platform as a ‘sandwich guru’ - that’s what Craig LaBan called me - to raise awareness.”  As a white Italian I had a 70 percent chance of finding a match, but if I was black or Hispanic, it would've been 7 percent. I hold fundraisers now and I try to mention it to everyone I know.

You seem healthy now.

I was out of work almost 2½ years. My wife and mom and niece - my sister’s daughter, Bethany "Boo" Messick - they were running the place. But I did get better. And I became a better person, too. I mean, I'm not very religious. But when you're in the hospital facing life and death, you make deals. So I'm like, "Listen, God, if I make it through this I'll be a better person, I promise!"

I kept thinking of the article Craig did before I got the surgery, and it made me out to be this great guy. And I'm reading it like, wow, this would be wonderful if this guy really existed! So I was like, I could either go about this two ways - I could keep being a jerk, or I could start being nice. My regular customers actually didn’t like it, they missed me being mean. But I’m much happier now.

Ever think about expanding with more locations?

No. I can say with certainty. I'm not doing that. People ask me all the time. They just think it's so easy - they say they'll raise all the money, that I won't have to do anything. But the thing is, the quality wouldn't be the same - people don't care the way I do. This is my passion. I'm nuts, and I readily admit it.

John’s Roast Pork

14 E. Snyder Ave., 215-463-1951

Hours: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday

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