Eats: Queen of the Cheesesteaks

Watch out, Pat’s, Geno’s, Steve’s and Jim’s. A new woman on the block wants to bust up the cheesesteak boys’ club




THE ARCHITECT-DESIGNED, scrubbed-down-every-15-minutes interior of the original Wit or Witout — and all the Wit or Witouts to follow, including Tumolo’s first franchise, at Red Lion and the Boulevard — have gray and red mosaic tile, tall upholstered stools, track lighting, grills glassed-in for spectating, and flat-screens tuned to sports for additional spectating. They also have a dozen cameras trained on customers and employees, and a rule against superfluous decorations. “No knickknacks,” says DiZio. There are no signs posting ordering instructions. She trains her employees to take orders in both Philadelphian and English.

The result is something that seems only subtly different to a local, and would certainly feel comfortable to anyone who’s a regular at Starbucks. The steaks aren’t bad, either. The meat is lean and flavorful. The roll is a little bit soft, a little bit crusty. The long hots are a nice touch. The Whiz and melted American … well, they are what they are.

WoW’s first day in business was Friday, January 9, 2009, the same day the shop received its certificate of operation from the Department of Health. “I had three employees, 50 rolls in stock, and barely any meat,” remembers DiZio. “I opened up, and within 15 minutes, a line forms out the door, to the corner and up the street.” Two hours later, absent a loaves-and-fishes-style miracle, DiZio closed the door.

What brought customers in that day, and on the days that followed, wasn’t just old-fashioned Frankford Avenue curiosity. It was bargain prices. Taking a page from the Pretzel Factory playbook, which requires new stores to give away pretzels their first week in business, WoW charged (and charges) $3 a cheesesteak in the first month in business, $4 in the second month, $5 in the third, and $6 from there on out.

A steak at Steve’s costs $7.52. Pat’s are $8.25; Geno’s, $8.25. DiZio says she won’t raise her prices. “People are looking for value, especially now. … Everybody’s looking for a deal” — which is why she also sells a Factory-inspired daytime combo of a sandwich, fries and soda for $7, and gives out “bounce-back” coupons for a dollar off your next cheesesteak. She also sends employees down to the parking lot of Citizens Bank Park to plaster cars with coupons.

It was this kind of thinking that attracted Tumolo, who sold Rita’s, then a $67 -million-a-year business, five years ago. He says, “Dan and Nicole have a great track record. They’ve grown one concept already…I don’t envision we’ll open up 100 Wit or Witouts in the next five years, but with smart growth, in the right markets, with the right sites, we’ll be very, very successful.” After all, as he says, “Rita’s raised water ice to the next level. Philly Pretzel raised soft pretzels to the next level. Now we’re going to raise cheesesteaks to the next level.”