Joe Groh has sold a gazillion beefy, cheesy, doughy, steamy sandwiches since buying Chink’s Steaks 14 years ago.
Even so, he’ll never know for sure how many sandwiches he didn’t sell because of the landmark Wissinoming eatery’s name, a moniker linked to the original owner and one that Groh inherited with the business.
How many would-be patrons chose to dine elsewhere, rather than support a business with a common ethnic slur emblazoned across its Torresdale Avenue facade and the T-shirts worn by its obsessively personable wait staff?
“I’m speculating it may have [hurt business],” Groh said on Friday after announcing plans to change the name of the 64-year-old steak shop.
From now on, it will be called “Joe’s Steaks & Soda Shop.” In keeping with the shop’s no-frills throwback motif, a new sign that went up Monday is mostly brown with orange and teal accents and hearkens to a nostalgic malt shop of the 1950s. Yet, it reflects a distinctly modern mindset, one recognizing that perceptions of negativity can trump even the most innocent of intentions.
“It’s not 1949 anymore. It’s 2013,” Groh said. “I think the younger generation does have more of a problem with [the name].”
Times were different when Sam “Chink” Sherman founded the shop in 1949 and gave it his own unusual nickname. Decades later, his widow reportedly told the Daily News that her husband acquired the nickname as a boy when friends teased him about his “slanty” eyes.
Sherman hired Groh in 1979 and taught him every aspect of the business. Sherman died in 1997. Groh bought the shop at 6030 Torresdale Ave. from Sherman’s widow two years later.
In 2004, civil rights advocates launched a campaign protesting the name that they argued was derogatory to Asian people. Several newspaper articles and news broadcasts chronicled the controversy. They demanded change, but Groh refused to capitulate, arguing that the name was not meant as an insult, but rather a tribute to the beloved Sherman.
“We did not associate it with a racial slur,” Groh said. “Chink was a neighborhood celebrity and, at the time, I wanted to accommodate our customers by keeping everything the same. Even the name.”
Groh now admits that he feared customer backlash.
“I was a new business person. I was scared to death back then,” he said. “I didn’t want to lose my business. Now I’m a veteran and I know better.”
He realized that the name came to overshadow the shop’s highly acclaimed sandwiches, which have won “Best of Philly” awards in perhaps the most highly competitive category. Protesters launched a second public relations push in 2008. The shop even caught some flak last year after an ESPN anchor used the derogatory term in reference to NBA player Jeremy Lin. The sportscaster lost his job, while the steak shop got a lot more unwanted attention, primarily via the Internet.
“Every time controversy comes up, our restaurant comes up,” Groh said. “But our name also comes up whenever you search for the best cheese steaks in Philly.”
The steaks are what attracted most of a near-record crowd to the shop on Friday afternoon. Many patrons said they didn’t even know about the name change, and would accept it with mixed feelings.
“It’s horrible because Chink’s is such a known name. You can’t change it,” said Brian Murphy, 17, of Wissinoming. “I understand it’s a racist term, but if you look at the place, it’s not an offensive place. It’s just a guy’s name. I mean, my friends call me ‘Smurf.’”
The Father Judge High School senior joined neighborhood pals Alex Griendling, 19, and Rob Reinhardt, 18, for lunch.
“It is kind of offensive. It’s just a racist word,” Reinhardt said. “[But] they have good cheese steaks.”
“It’s still gonna be named Chink’s to us,” said Griendling.
All agreed they’d continue to visit the shop, regardless of the name.
Ed and Carol Campbell of Southampton, Bucks County, were similarly surprised by the news. They brought their grandson, Brendan Kern, 17, there as a birthday gift. Carol grew up in Tacony and Ed in Mayfair. They’ve been visiting the shop since the 1950s and always will remember its founder despite the name on the sign.
“This was always the place in Northeast Philly and Chink was a showman,” Ed said. “Just look at his menu — no sauce, no nothing on the steak. I remember him saying, ‘If you want sauce, go to McDonald’s.’ ”
Nowadays, the shop offers various toppings on its steaks.
“It was just the way he cooked them, his constant chatter — I remember that,” Carol said.
Groh is hopeful that Sherman would be supportive of the decision to change.
“He was a business person and hopefully this will boost business,” the owner said. “So I think he’d be happy about that.” ••
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Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or email@example.com