Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

A battle royal, with cheese

It's generally acknowledged the Philly steak sandwich was born on a grill at Ninth and Wharton Streets attended by brothers Pasquale "Pat" and Harry Olivieri.

It's South Philly lore, retold and promoted by the Olivieris in the name and motto: Pat's King of Steaks, The Old Original Still Run by the Olivieri Family.

That legend may be the only thing that the third-generation Olivieris agree on. Like a culinary War of the Roses, the cousins are in federal court, where a judge has been asked to decide who may rightly claim lineage to the King of Steaks.

At stake: a name and trademark, foundation of a multimillion-dollar empire built on steak sandwiches, cheesesteaks and cheese fries - all Olivieri innovations.

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  • Rick Olivieri, 42, grandson of Pat and owner of Rick's Steaks at Reading Terminal Market and a seasonal satellite at Citizens Bank Park, is promoting this year as the sandwich's 75th anniversary.

    But Frank Olivieri, 43, grandson of Harry but owner-operator of Pat's, says the 75th anniversary was really two years ago.

    "My grandfather told me so, and he's the guy who should know," Frank said, adding that he hadn't celebrated then and didn't plan to now.

    "Nobody really knows because everybody who did is dead," Frank said. "It's just another day in the sandbox for us. We're not going to stand here and say, 'We're the greatest.' It's a given. We're here, and we invented it."

    A lot changes in 75 years - or 77, if you prefer - and intrafamily competition among the Olivieris appears to be one.

    Consider Harry, who died in July at 90. In a 1980 interview, he recalled how Pat, tired of hot dogs and pork sandwiches for lunch, suggested frying chip steak and serving it on a roll. Harry went out for the beef and fried it up with some onions and peppers. But before Pat could eat his lunch, it was sold for 10 cents (some say a nickel) to a taxi driver enticed by the aroma.

    As for the name, Harry was equally modest: "We called it Pat's because my late brother was older than myself. My family had great respect for one another. Since he was older than me, it was named after him."

    In some ways the split between cousins seems predestined by their grandfathers' personalities. Pat, according to newspaper accounts, was the hard-driving entrepreneur who opened the hot dog stand in 1930 to supplement his day job as a drop-forge operator making Flexible Flyer sleds.

    It was Pat, succeeded by son Herbert, who expanded Pat's King of Steaks with franchises in the '60s. Pat also branched into real estate and, after his first wife died in 1956, spent six years managing eventual light-heavyweight boxing champ Harold Johnson.

    In 1964 Pat retired and moved to Palm Springs, Calif., where he tried, unsuccessfully, to open a West Coast outlet for steak sandwiches. He died in 1970 at 63, two days after returning to Philadelphia for the opening of a third Pat's Steaks at Chelten and Wayne Avenues.

    Rick Olivieri said he had met his grandfather just once, during that visit to Philadelphia in 1970.

    "My grandfather had moved to California, but my great-uncle Harry, we were over his house for dinner once a month," Rick recalled. "He was very kind, a very gentle man. The first thing he would do when he saw us kids was give us each a $10 bill and tell us, 'Now go and save this.' "

    After Pat's death, Frank said, the family divided the empire. The original Ninth and Wharton spot went to Harry and son Frank Sr., and the franchises to Herbert.

    "We didn't want anything else," Frank said of his family's decision to focus on South Philly. "This place made more than enough money for us."

    Herbert Olivieri was a graduate of the Wharton School and a lawyer, and he became increasingly involved in Republican politics.

    Gradually, Rick said, his father closed the franchises and then, 25 years ago, opened Olivieri's Prince of Steaks at the Reading Terminal, the name a play on Pat's title of king.

    Rick began managing Olivieri's and in 1995, three years before Herbert died at 64, renamed the shop after himself.

    For a decade the Olivieris - north and south - coexisted, even though Rick's father had incorporated into the Reading Terminal shop the Pat's "crown" logo as well as signs and old photos publicizing the link to the legendary King Pat.

    All that changed last year when Frank filed a trademark-infringement lawsuit against Rick.

    What changed?

    Neither cousin wants to discuss the litigation in detail.

    You could blame the media. Recounting family history in periodic newspaper articles was one thing, cable food channels and the Internet another.

    Frank's lawsuit was filed in October after Rick appeared May 23 with Al Roker on a food segment on NBC's Today show.

    And Frank credits his appearances on the Food Network and the Internet and the shop's role as background in Rocky and other movies with tripling his sales in the last decade.

    Rick said the suit had stunned him because the sign and old pictures of grandfather Pat had been displayed for 25 years.

    "I mean, I was a grandson," Rick protested. "I don't know, I just figured that Pat was the king and my father was the prince, and then when he passed on, I was the king," Rick reasoned.

    That logic may work for Burke's Peerage, but not in the realm of business.

    "We own the trademark, and we registered it legally," Frank said. "I think I'm still on good terms with my cousin. I just want him to do the right thing."


    Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

     

    Joseph A. Slobodzian INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
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