Philly's most famous brand comes wit' attitude
By Meryl Levitz
The question I heard most about the recent visit by members of the Democratic National Committee in search of a site for the 2016 convention was: "Didn't it bother you that, with everything you do every day to promote our city, so many of the stories focused on the lunch at Pat's King of Steaks?"
My answer: Not at all. Every successful destination needs a few strong brands, and the cheesesteak is undeniably one of ours.
The cheesesteak as a big brand has evolved in a very intriguing and useful way. While it used to be the beginning and the end of the Philadelphia story, it is now a very effective gateway to telling the many stories that make our city so popular these days.
Yes, we have become popular. More people are visiting, more people are moving in, more buildings are being built, more riverfront and unclaimed spaces are being energized, more art and music are being created, and more neighborhoods are becoming communities again. And everyone wants a cheesesteak.
While the cheesesteak used to be the symbol of our blue-collar approach to life, in 2006 it became the megaphone for the national conversation about immigration. When Geno's Steaks put up a sign requesting that its customers speak English, the Associated Press quoted me as saying, "I certainly wouldn't want a national audience to think it represented all of the wonderful cheesesteak makers in the whole city. This isn't representative of the Philadelphia attitude."
The many e-mails, letters, and phone calls I receive, whether locally or from as far away as from soldiers in Iraq, tell me that cheesesteaks aren't just a Philadelphia story. They open debates about the people here, as well as our many visitors.
When Stephen Starr opened Barclay Prime in 2004, he created a $100 cheesesteak to show how our Philly brand could be upscaled.
When John Kerry was campaigning for president in 2004, the cheesesteak became the national symbol of his lack of connection to the American people. His choice of Swiss for cheese was compared with President George H.W. Bush's inability to say how much a loaf of bread cost when he was running for reelection in 1992.
When our wondrous food scene took hold, everyone paid homage to its humble roots, seeking a connection, offering vegetarian and vegan versions, as well as additions and accompaniments to the original. Other cities tried their hand at them, but even they agree - as do the many food writers and other journalists we host - that you have to be in Philly to have the truest experience.
The cheesesteak and Philadelphia even starred in a Super Bowl ad this year, Geico's Cheesesteak Shuffle.
On our website visitphilly.com, the cheesesteak reigns supreme and has only increased in popularity in recent years. Our Guide to Philly Cheesesteaks is the second-most-visited page on the site, after only the homepage. There's so much demand for cheesesteak information that we've expanded and enhanced our coverage, and traffic to the page has more than doubled since 2012.
The interest and devotion continue to grow as Philadelphia's pride and confidence grows. The cheesesteak is accessible to everybody, but it is only truly ours. And like all good brands, it spotlights all our other goodness, whether it is our food or our spirit. You can have a cheesesteak wit' or wit'out, but you can't have our city wit'out its passion, quirks, loyalty, and history.
So let the media write, snap, tweet, and shoot away, covering Philadelphia from a cheesesteak point of view. These days, it is just the beginning. And DNC, there's more America where that cheesesteak came from!
Meryl Levitz is president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia. firstname.lastname@example.org