Having gone to school and lived for four years in Center City Philadelphia, my love for the city of brotherly love is quite strong. Being a pescetarian during those years, I never was able to enjoy a classic Philly cheesesteak while actually living in the city of Philadelphia. On a trip back a year after graduating, I knew I needed to try one, so I, of course, went to Pat’s.
That was back in 2013 and, to be honest, the “originator” was so good that I never had any interest in trying any of the other places in Philly. My personal favorite part is eating it with one of the hot peppers they have at the condiment stand (drool).
It’s safe to say that the landscape of American cuisine would not be the same without the Philly Cheesesteak, and I had the amazing opportunity to chat with Frank Olivieri, fourth generation owner of Pat’s King of Steaks, and great nephew of Pat Olivieri (the creator of the first ever cheesesteak!)
Laura: So Frank, can you just tell me a little bit about your background?
Frank: My name is Frank Enrico Olivieri, I am the fourth generation owner of Pat’s King of Steaks in South Philadelphia where both the Philadelphia steak sandwich and cheesesteak were invented. So how the business started was: it was my grandfather, my father’s father’s older brother Pat who started the business in 1930 and it was just a natural succession for me to come and take it over.
Laura: I understand that there’s quite a story linked to the invention of the cheesesteak. Can you tell me the origin story of the first ever cheesesteak?
Frank: Sure. As lore has it, as I’ve been told over the years, my great uncle Pat and my grandfather had a hot dog stand, actually right across the street from the store. It was an open-air hot dog stand, and at that time most people did not have refrigeration in their houses, in Philadelphia, in South Philadelphia at least. So everyone would shop fresh. The oldest and continuously running market, The Italian Market, in Philadelphia is right here, so people would shop fresh everyday – so they’d take the trolley, get off at 9th and Passyunk Avenue, grab a hot dog from Pat, because hot dogs were all the craze in the 30s, and they would shop fresh and then get back on the trolley and leave.
So, one day Pat got tired of eating hot dogs every day for lunch and he sent my grandfather down to the butcher to pick up whatever scrap meat they had, trimmings, and they cooked them up on their hot dog grill. Onions were the condiment for the sandwich so he’d put it on a loaf of Italian bread, cut it in half, give half to my grandfather, half for himself, and then the cab driver who ate hot dogs every day, saw the sandwich and said, “Wow, that looks really great, make me one!” He said “Well, I only have enough for myself, but I’ll…I’ll give ya half since you come everyday.” So he cut his sandwich in half, his side, gave it to the cab driver, the cab driver took a bite and said “Wow, this is great, forget about hot dogs, this is the sandwich you should be selling.” And that was the invention of the Philly steak sandwich back in 1930.
Laura: Wow, wow. So you grew up eating cheesesteaks, I assume, all the time?
Frank: Yeah, So I’m 54 years old, so I think I’ve been eating cheesesteaks for probably 54 years and 9 months, since I was eating them while I was in my mother’s belly.
Laura: Was there ever a period of time where you were sick of them? Or is it something that’s so ingrained in you and your family?
Frank: It’s—it’s one of those things that’s like a love/hate kind of thing. I hate that I love them so much. Days go by sometimes when I haven’t had one and I want one so badly, like if my girlfriend and I are on a trip and we come back, the first thing we do is we take the uber or taxi cab right to here, grab a cheesesteak and then go home. It’s something I crave, there are certain foods that you just crave, and it doesn’t really matter what time of day or night it is, the Philly cheesesteak, and Pat’s cheesesteak is one of those things that I just crave.
Laura: So I noticed that when you told the origin story there was no cheese involved. When did cheese come into the picture?
Frank: So cheese happened probably in the ‘40s. We had an employee here called Joe, his nickname was Cocky Joe because he was always drunk, he was fighting with people all the time, constantly, and he himself got tired of eating sandwiches with and without onions, so he put a little Provolone cheese on it, ‘cause-you know, we’re Italian, that’s the first cheese that it started with. Although that’s not what we’re renowned for. And one of the customers said “Wow, that looks good, make me one!” So he put the cheese on it and that was the invention of the cheesesteak sandwich.
Laura: Nice, so now would you say you’re known for the whiz?
Frank: Yeah, believe it or not. So, we, my father’s family, my grandfather and Uncle Pat, had several stores running, and this being the original one, he wanted to keep it as original as possible, he was a stickler for that. So, people would come and request cheese and he’d be like “Oh no, you have to go to 33rd/Ridge Avenue and get that, we don’t have that here.”
So my Dad, in the mid 50s, found Kraft Cheese Whiz. And he used to hide it on the side of the grill so my grandfather and his uncle wouldn’t see it. And people would come over and he would put the cheese on the sandwiches: “Here, just taste this.” And people were tasting the cheese whiz, and they loved it! So that became our signature cheese. So, if you were to ask me the ratio between American cheese, Provolone cheese, and cheese whiz, I would still say the cheese whiz, the original cheese, the “signature” cheese I should say, outsells the other two probably ten to one.
Laura: How did Pat’s become as popular as it is today?
Frank: Uncle Pat had this ability to go places and take pictures with people and take them back to the store. And everybody wanted to see who Pat was hanging out with. He was friends with the Three Stooges, Humphrey Bogart, all the people in Hollywood, anyone who came to Philadelphia to perform a show, came and saw Pat and Pat took pictures with them.
One of the things that made Pat so popular was: in the 1930s after the war, there were coupons for gasoline, it was the depression, but my uncle Pat had an inexhaustible supply of meat and people could never understand where Pat was getting all this meat from. They had gas coupons, they couldn’t buy butter, no one had money, but Pat had all this meat, and all this bread and everything. Someone started this nasty rumor that Pat was selling horse meat. Now, if you think about it, my grandfather was working down at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, driving a forklift at like 14 years old, and my Uncle Pat, to make ends meet, was working at the Radio Flyer sled company in Philadelphia, making sleds. So, people must have just thought that my grandfather was getting old cavalry horses from the first world war, taking them to slaughter and taking them to the store, and then Pat was selling horse meat, because “Where was Pat getting all this meat?” No one could understand. So myUncle Pat, being the person he was, put $10,000 in a mason jar, stuck it on the counter behind the cash register- and $10,000 in the ‘30s was like a $1M-and he dared anybody from anywhere to come to prove that he was selling horse meat, because the rumor was so vicious, it was the big talk of the town, made the newspaper and everything, but no one could ever prove that the rumor was true because Uncle Pat started the rumor. So, he knew that if anybody came down to the store and tried his sandwich, which was unlike anyone else’s sandwich in the city, or around for that matter, they would get hooked on the sandwich. So he’d bring them in, they’d taste the sandwich, and they’d say, “Wow, it’s not horse meat, it’s rib-eye!” And that’s how it all started. That was just one of those things he did to gain popularity, he was an advertising genius.
Laura: Can you walk me through how to order a cheesesteak at Pat’s? I know there’s quite a process.
Frank: Yes, it’s very specific. So, our employees probably make the sandwiches in under six seconds per sandwich. I would say sometimes 3-5 seconds. So, the line could be an hour and a half long sometimes, sometimes there’s probably 500-600 people waiting in line on a Saturday evening. So in order to make everything go faster-like if you go to certain restaurants and you order a BC, that’s a Black Cow, a root beer float with ice cream in it. We’ve shortened things down here in Philadelphia, we have a specific way of speaking. So, if you wanted a steak sandwich with or without onions, you would say one “wit” or one “witout.” As it went on and the menu started evolving, it became a “cheese wit,” “cheese witout,” being the signature cheese, cheese whiz, so if you wanted American or Provelone, it would be “american wit,” “american witout,” “provie wit,” “provie witout,” “mushroom provie pepper wit,” “mushroom provie pepper witout,” like that. It just makes the line go much faster.
Laura: Do you think that a lot of your customers are “with the lingo” or do you get people who freeze?
Frank: You know what’s kind of funny—well,we have a sign outside, I don’t know if you saw it or not.
Frank: But the sign kind of helps people along when you’re waiting in line. You know, “have your money ready,” “if you make a mistake just go to the back of the line and start over again.” We’ve been known to send people across the street to the competitor because they can’t figure it out or send them to the back of the line. All in jest of course. It’s part of the whole allure, the “show,” so to speak. Some people do freeze, they up to the window and…you know, “cheesesteak” sounds so similar to “cheesecake.” So people come up to me and say, “Can I have a cheesecake with onions?” I’m like “Do you really think that’s gonna taste good?” You can really tell the person who’s not a regular who comes to the store or someone who hasn’t done their diligence and read the sign. They’ll look at me and go “Gimme a philly wit,” because whenever you eat outside of Philly, “Philadelphia,” the Philadelphia Cheesesteak has become the “philly.” But yes, people do get nervous, so you can tell someone who is not a local, not a regular, or someone who just flew into town and wants a “philly wit,” – Like, wha? The sign’s right there. So we help them along. We’re gracious. I think. Sometimes.
Laura: Oh good. So speaking of outside of Philly, do you have a place that you’ve had a cheesesteak outside of Philly that you’re like “this is comparable, this is ok?”
Frank: Ok so this is a crazy question. I just recently moved back to Philadelphia, and I’m enjoying a new life.
Laura: From where?
Frank: From New Jersey, I was married and divorced; I’m living in Philly now.
So, I’ve never had another cheesesteak in the state of Pennsylvania up until three years ago, and my first and favorite cheesesteak in Philadelphia is Steve’s Prince of Steaks in the Northeast. Now, there’s a reason for that. When I was a little boy, I remember Steve, the owner, he’s the greatest guy in the world, I love him. He would stand outside with a notebook and a stopwatch and he basically duplicated exactly what we do here down to the wooden spoons in the bowls that we had – he actually still has them, we don’t have them anymore. His steak, if I close my eyes and put it next to mine, I would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. So, I had one of my competitors for the first time, my competitor right across the street. We were doing a cheesesteak festival; we were doing a promotion on TV. So, similar but different. The bakers are all cousins, so the bread is quite similar. He cuts his meat a little thicker- we all use rib-eye, all the big places use rib-eye, so we all have that commonality there, the commonality of the bread, the commonality with the cheese whiz. He gets prepackaged sliced onions, we slice our onions ourselves, and so that’s a difference right there- crunch factor. Then he prepares his meat differently across the street; we’ll speak of him since he’s so close. And we’re friends, we actually just out to dinner the other night.
Frank: He cooks his in water. We cook ours in soybean oil, which doesn’t lend any flavor to it. He cuts his meat a little thicker, so his meat stays exactly the same way, ours is a little thinner, it falls apart, so it’s not the chop thing, we don’t do the chop thing over here, if I ever hear of somebody chopping, they’re fired. And then he does another thing differently than us, he puts his cheese whiz on the roll before he actually makes the sandwich. And we put our cheese whiz on after the sandwich is made, so every time that spatula goes through the steak sandwich and it goes back to the vat of cheese, it flavors the cheese. So, the cheese is different. Like, if you taste the cheese at the steak window and taste the cheese at the soda window where the French fries are made, and the cheese fries, it’s like two different products. So, that alone separates us a lot.
Laura: Do you think that putting the cheese whiz on, aside from it flavoring the cheese whiz when you put it back in, do you think it also affects the bread, like the experience of eating it?
Frank: Absolutely. I think what happens is if you put the cheese whiz on the bread, then your bread is sort of insulated from the juices of themeat, which is his and other peoples’ lack because their cooking preparation is different. When you eat one of his cheesesteaks it’s very clean, it looks like it can go in the Smithsonian Institute the way it’s made. Where ours is…it’s a sandwich, and a sandwich, you know, the bread is the vehicle that carries the flavor inside of the sandwich. Here’s the thing. So, if you go to New Jersey, and you get a hoagie or a submarine, the way they make them is they put the mayonnaise on the roll, they put the lettuce down on the bottom, then the cold cuts go on top, lettuce, tomato, onion, oregano, and then they put oil on top of it.
In Philadelphia however, the mayonnaise goes on the roll, the cold cuts, then the lettuce and tomato go on top. Whereas in New Jersey the lettuce is on the bottom and the tomato is on top. The way you actually prepare a sandwich dictates the mouth feel and the flavor profile of the sandwich. That being said, when all the grease and the cheese whiz seeps into the roll together, and then you get down to that last bite, if you give that last bite of that sandwich to somebody, that means you’re absolutely in love with them because it’s the best bite of the sandwich.
Laura: I’m getting hungry now. One more question. So, aside from being the “originator” and aside from your family history, what is your favorite part of being the owner of Pat’s? What about it makes you extremely happy?
Frank: My family’s had this since 1930, so for me it’s so ingrained in my life. When you go places, people recognize you; it’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes it’s annoying, sometimes it’s great, you walk down the street “Oh Frankie, gimme a cheesesteak wit onions!” and you never get past that. You get all the best seats in the restaurants. You call up, they say, “There’s a six month waiting list.” “It’s Frankie from Pat’s Steaks.” “Oh walk right in!” We can walk into restaurants anywhere in the city. We are such an iconic place. Philadelphia is known for a couple things, it’s known for the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the first capital of the United States, the Rocky statue, the art museum, but what makes Philadelphia Philadelphia is the cheesesteak. You can’t walk in any neighborhood and not see a cheesesteak. You can’t go in almost any airport and not see a cheesesteak. When I travel, it’s like “Wow my family invented them!” And here’s a funny story. Out in Chicago for a national restaurant show-and I’m a pizza junkie, I’m also a certified pizzaiolo, I’m a classically trained French chef as well-so, sitting in Pizzeria Uno, and I’m looking around with my friends and I’m saying “It must be really cool to own a joint like this where people come from all over the world and take pictures and eat your food,” and my friends are looking at me like “Do you know what you do for a living?” I’m like “Oh!” It’s just so ingrained in my life I don’t even think about it! It’s so cool. It’s the coolest thing in the world.
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Frank also shared some of Pat’s wonderful old pictures, featuring Pat with The Three Stooges, Humphrey Bogart, Connie Mack, and a lovely studio photo of Count Basie and Chita Rivera!