How Pat's staked its claim to cheesesteak fame

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Frank Olivieri Jr. goes for a Whiz wit at Pat's King of Steaks at Ninth and Wharton Streets.

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.

Around 1920, a young man named Pat Olivieri departed from Italy with his parents and landed in South Philadelphia. A decade later, he was helping take care of his younger siblings and working two jobs to make ends meet - building wooden sleds at the Radio Flyer factory and running a hot dog cart near the corner of Ninth and Wharton Streets.

Legend has it that one day in 1930, sick of eating hot dogs but low on cash, Pat sent his 11-year-old younger brother Harry to the corner butcher to get some meat scraps. He tossed them on the grill for a quick sear, stuffed them into a roll, and started to eat. A passing cab driver smelled the creation and asked if he could buy one instead of his usual frankfurter. There wasn’t enough meat to make another, so Pat tore his lunch into two and handed half to his customer, who was immediately impressed.

“You should stop selling hot dogs and just sell these!” the cab driver supposedly said, setting in motion the founding Pat’s King of Steaks and the creation of an iconic Philadelphia sandwich.

How much of the story is true? No one knows. Frank Olivieri Jr., the current, third-generation owner of the 85-year-old cheesesteak business, recently bumped into a woman who said that she was the niece of that same cab driver, and told the same (albeit oft-repeated) story. 

However Pat Olivieri got his start, there’s evidence that he was a relentless promoter. He made a habit of bringing steaks to the Earle Theatre at 11th and Market Streets and catching movie stars for a photograph as they exited. Celebrity endorsements worked as well then as they do now, and Pat’s Steaks became famous. Olivieri moved the shop into the triangular building across from his open-air cart and began raking in the dough. He was able to parlay his money into real estate investments that soon amassed him a small fortune. 

Success can breed jealousy and cause disputes, and the next 60 years saw various members of the Olivieri family embroiled in feuds and legal battles. Factions fought over who was entitled to inheritances, who owned the bricks, and who had the rights to use the name and logo. Additional locations were launched and shuttered, including the popular Reading Terminal Market offshoot Rick’s Steaks, which closed in 2008. 

The original Passyunk Avenue location ended up in the hands of Pat’s younger brother Harry, who passed it on to his son, Frank Olivieri Sr., who in turn ceded control to his own son. According to Frank Olivieri Jr., he has finally bought out all of his siblings, and is now the sole owner.

Between bites of a breakfast “Whiz wit” on a recent December morning, Olivieri, 51, recounted what it was like to grow up in South Philly as heir to the cheesesteak throne, how it feels to be able to make or break campaigns for presidential candidates, and why he thinks the Geno’s/Pat’s rivalry is the best thing that could have happened.

 

Did you work at the shop growing up?

I started working there when I was 11, on the weekends. I wasn’t allowed inside yet. I had to stay outside and wipe the tables. Actually, we didn’t have tables back then. We just had counters that wrapped all the way around the building. I was short, so I’d carry a milk crate around with me, then climb up and wipe them off with a towel. In the winter, the stainless steel would freeze up immediately behind me.

Eventually, I got to go inside and work the soda window. Then I moved up to frying the steaks, and eventually I graduated to putting the cheese on, making the actual sandwiches and dealing with customers. 

Did your friends know you as the cheesesteak kid?

Yeah, everybody knew. And the people who worked at the shop knew who I was, too. I’d pull up in my mother’s car - a nice car, like a Seville - and Tommy, who’s our manager now, he used to say, “Who is this little strapper?” They’d tell him, “That’s Frankie, the owner’s son!” According to him, I used to come up to the counter like a big shot and say, "Gimme three doubles!" (That's double meat, extra cheese.) 

When did you start working there full time?

After high school. I always planned to go to culinary school, actually. I was real serious about it. I went to Friends Select from sixth grade on, and around 10th grade, I cooked an alumni dinner. One of the alums sat on the board at CIA [Culinary Institute of America], and he was like, “You’re coming to CIA!” I was like, "No. I'm going to Le Cordon Bleu. I'm going to France!" 

But you never went? 

The summer after I graduated, I said to my dad, "Listen, I'll stay work for you until September, but in September, I'm going to France." I wanted everything French - women with hairy armpits, smoking, Campari, foie gras for breakfast - that's the life I wanted. But then my dad had to let go a long-time manager, so I stayed on to help. Although I did eventually get to go to culinary school, 30 years later. I recently got a bachelor's from the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College.

When did your grand-uncle move into the space where Pat’s is now?

Back when Pat had the hot dog cart, the building where the shop is now had a taproom on the first floor and a restaurant on the second floor. But they always said the basement was used for embalming bodies. This intersection was all about that, because there was a funeral parlor on one corner, a church where the vacant lot was, a tombstone shop across the street, and where the big park is now, that was a cemetery.

Anyway, the building owner, Joe Butch, he told uncle Pat that to move his steak sandwich business up to the second floor restaurant before the winter got too cold. Pat didn’t have any money, but Joe Butch told him, "Maybe you'll start making money, then you'll pay me." 

Guess he started making money?

Yeah. More people were coming in for sandwiches than were drinking at the first floor bar, if you can believe it. The bar owner got mad and decided to cut a hole in his wall so he could re-sell the sandwiches out his window. Pat eventually bought out the bartender, and moved the grill downstairs. 

And he eventually bought the building?

Well, no, my dad did. Because the people who owned the building hated my grandfather Harry, who took over from Pat. We had a 99-year lease on it, but then my father finally convinced Joe Butch's daughter to sell.

How did word spread; why were the sandwiches so popular?

Uncle Pat knew he had something no one else had. So he would take sandwiches to the Earle Theater and take photos with movie stars. Then he’d blow them up huge - I have them in the basement - and put them up at the shop. People would come by and be really impressed with all the famous people he was hanging out with. My favorite is him with Humphrey Bogart.

Another way word spread was this “vicious rumor” circulating that Pat was selling horse meat during the Depression, when meat was in short supply. People said he must be using the old World War I cavalry horses from the Navy Yard, because his brother worked there. So uncle Pat offers a $10,000 reward to anyone who can prove he's selling horse meat. He puts the cash in a glass jar right out front. And people would come from all over to try to prove the rumor true. But nobody ever could...because Pat’s the one who started it. 

Sounds like a true showman.

He was. Then my dad took over and wasn’t really into advertising, but a game-changer was in 1976, when they filmed Rocky here. People started coming from all over to see the spot, and my dad had a plaque made - by the tombstone people - to commemorate it.

When I took over the business, I started to advertise, even though my dad told me not to. I used to take out ads all over, like in the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun - just as reminder, because I knew people from Philadelphia traveled there.

What about the rivalry with Geno’s?

I gotta tell you, it was the best thing that ever happened to both of our business. Because competition not keeps you on your toes. And the media loved it - they basically created it, thought it up.

So you were friendly with Geno’s owners?

I respected Joey Vento ... his ability to say what he thought. I didn't necessarily respect everything that came out of his mouth. When he would call me over there for meetings, he would say some things that would just make me cringe. 

Nowadays, though, I’m friendly with Joey’s son, Geno. He, Tony Luke and I all live in the same building. When we go out to dinner together, Tony Luke will get recognized first. Then Geno. Then it's like, "And who is that third guy?" People ask always ask what we talk about. It’s really things like family, but I always say, "Price fixing."

But your prices and Geno's prices have always been the same.

True. If something happened like the baker raised the price of the bread, my father would go over there and say, "What do you want to do?" and they would always raise the price on the steaks simultaneously.

Whose bread do you use?

Aversa, in New Jersey. Our original baker was Vilotti[-Pisanelli], but then they closed - they sold out to D'Ambrosio, and the bread just wasn't the same. 

How about the meat - Geno’s cooks theirs flat and yours is chopped?

Our meat is not chopped, no. People think it is, but it’s just real tender rib-eye, and it falls apart like that. A few years ago, I made it a mission to skip factory farms and buy the most humanely raised meat I could. Most of those places don’t process year-round, so we get our meat from several different suppliers, mostly in Australia, New Zealand or Uruguay. 

Then there’s the cheese.

The story goes that a night cook named Joe Lorenzo, or “Cocky Joe,” first thought up adding cheese, because he was sick of just steak and onions. That was at a different location out on Ridge Avenue. Pat never wanted cheese at his original shop because he tried to keep sort of kosher for all his Jewish friends. Then my dad discovered Cheez Whiz, and it was perfect, because he could just hide the can at the edge of the grill where my grandfather wouldn’t see it. He started serving it to people anyway, like, “Try this!” and it became the most popular way to order.

Is Whiz still the most popular?

Yea, followed closely by provolone. Then American. 

But no Swiss, right? Are you the reason John Kerry lost the presidential election?

So, here's what happened. John Kerry comes up to the window. He leans in and basically whispers, "Do you guys have Swiss cheese?" I said, "Senator, no, we don't. We have American, provolone or Whiz." He said, "Which do you suggest?" I told him to get American.

I didn't realize that right next to him was this reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer who was listening to all this. The next day, it was in the paper, and then got picked up by the Washington Post and just blew up. I freaked out, because Pat's has always had a great relationship with politicians.

What other politicians?

Bill Clinton, for one. He first came down when he was campaigning with Al Gore, and did a speech here in the middle and tried both ours and Geno’s. He told me he liked ours better, and after that, whenever he flew into Philadelphia, he came here to get cheesesteaks. One time Ed Rendell calls me to tell me he's bringing the President down, and I get off the phone there’s a Secret Service guy behind me. He says, "Do you mind if I put a man in your building?" and after I said go ahead, more than a dozen guys start swarming in. I was like, "I thought you said one guy?" He's like, "I just wanted to see what you said."

What's the hardest thing about running this business?

Well, I could do this with my eyes closed, I’ve been doing it so many years. The challenge is trying to make sure my employees are happy. Also to not pay attention to what people say online. People call this a tourist trap, but what does that even mean? It’s a family-owned shop that’s been in business 85 years.

Pat’s King of Steaks

1237 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-468-1546

Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.