Northeast Times

Former Chink’s Steaks is now Joe’s

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.” •• 

ON THE WEB: 

To view an ex­clus­ive video tour of Chink’s Steaks, vis­it the North­east Times’ You­Tube chan­nel at www.you­tube.com/user/North­east­Times

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at twaring@bsmphilly.com.

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