A New Direction for Geno's Steaks

Geno Vento, son and heir of the iconic Philadelphia cheesesteak shop, is working to expand his father’s empire and take it in new directions two years after his father’s death.

Changes are afoot at Geno’s Steaks.

On the eve of the cheesesteak shop’s 47th anniversary Monday, Geno Vento, the legendary cheesesteak shop’s namesake, sat down to reflect on where the “empire” his late father, Joey, built has been, and where he’d like to take it.

"It’s rough, I have big shoes to fill," said the 42-year-old. "Every time I do something I always think ‘How would dad do it and would he be proud of it’ and so far it’s been a win-win."

Geno, an only child, started working in the shop at 9th and Passyunk when he was 17. He says, unlike his father, he’s trusting the longtime staff of 35 to do their jobs handling the day-to-day operations of the food stop that sells a cheesesteak, on average, every 3 minutes.

"Dad was very old-school Italian. There was no democracy, it was a dictatorship," he said. "I believe in team work and getting everybody’s ideas. I may be looking at something one way and somebody may be looking at it differently – and like, you know what, that’s a great idea."

Geno says not micromanaging his staff gives him extra time to promote the business -- like organizing the shop’s first anniversary celebration and expand philanthropic and promotion projects. They just filmed an episode of Cake Boss based around the anniversary and plan to donate a portion of sales Tuesday to the American Association for Cancer Research.

The shop is also expanding its use of social media to attract new customers and reward the fiercely loyal following by retweeting and posting fan’s photos.

"We now have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram," he said. "When there’s a celebrity sighting we’ll tweet it out right away…and get hundreds of comments."

Geno’s took a hit after his father died of a massive heart attack in August 2011. Geno would not say how far sales declined, but he says they’ve since been trending up – something he hopes to continue.

Personally, Geno says his father’s 2011 heart attack death and the recent passing of his mother from cancer made him realize the shop, while his livelihood, is not the only thing in his life.

Joey Vento was a workaholic. Geno says it wasn’t uncommon for his father to come in at 4 in the morning and still be in the window, making steaks on the grill, at midnight.

"His work ethic surpassed anyone’s," Geno said. "I wanna enjoy life and do things."

Geno has begun taking culinary classes at The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College – a move that, he says, fueled rumors he’s looking to expand the culinary empire.

"I’m just a home cook. I’m just doing it for fun," he said. “I’m not opposed to opening up other places, but right now it makes it more unique and more special when there’s just one location where we have Jack Nicholson waiting in line."

While Geno is bringing the cheesesteak joint into the 21st century, he said there are two things that are not going to change: the cheesesteak recipe and that controversial "Please Speak English" sign.

Geno says he has differing views than his father, but admits it will stay posted to honor his father’s dying wish.

"The sign won’t come down. He had his viewpoints, I have mine and that’s all I’ll say,” Geno said. “It’s never coming down."

Geno's Steaks' Geno Vento poses with "Cake Boss" star Buddy Valastro during a TV shoot centered around the cheesesteak joint's 47th anniversary. The cheesesteak cake is 12-feet long, 3-feet high and weighed more than 1,300 lbs.

Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, vince.lattanzio@nbcuni.com or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter.

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