To this day, I’m not entirely certain whether Joe Groh was trying to be a good man or simply a good businessman when he chose to change the name of his Tacony cheesesteak shop to “Joe’s Steaks.”
What I do know that it made his life a lot more difficult for a long time. Fans of the shop’s old name, “Chink’s,” were enraged at the switch — convinced Joe had knuckled under to the forces of political correctness. They offered responses that ranged from taking their cheesesteak business elsewhere to outright displays of ugly hostility.
The reaction left Groh wondering if his business would survive.
“It’s the scariest thing in the world to look at an empty store,” he said in the summer of 2013.
The other thing I know? If Joe had kept the shop’s old name, there’s no way he’d have been able to open up a new, second outpost in Fishtown, like he’s doing this week. “Chink’s” might’ve played OK in the old neighborhood — but it was an impossible name for a business that had its sights set on new neighborhoods and (like most smart businesses) growth. Racial slurs are, for the most part, bad business.
Sometimes, being a good person and being a good businessperson go hand in hand. And sometimes it takes a few months — or a few years — for the benefit to make itself apparent.
Not that signs of controversy don’t still exist. Go to the restaurant’s Facebook page and you’ll note that most threads feature somebody chiming in with a Chink’s reference. And the publicist’s press materials for the Fishtown store’s launch note that opening occurs on the second anniversary of the rebranding from “Chink’s” to “Joe’s.”
And that’s probably the way it will continue to be — not least because Groh, despite renaming his store, never seemed to try to rid himself of the legacy of its founder, Sam “Chink” Sherman. The store’s website features a big picture of Chink’s during Sherman’s ownership, and a brief bio of the man who started the business way back in 1949. Groh worked for Sherman for 20 years, then took over the shop when Sherman died in 1999, and it has always been clear that he reveres the lessons — sometimes hard-won — that he learned from his mentor.
“Chink, he taught me well,” Groh told me the first time we talked. “We don’t skimp on anything. If you want a delicious cheesesteak, this is the place to come.”
There is, perhaps, a lesson for Philadelphia in all of this.
We are sometimes efficient — maybe too efficient — at wiping out vestiges of our honored past that don’t serve us too well. The Boyd Theater is coming down in Center City right now, brick by brick, and you don’t have to look far to find somebody who thinks the old joint could’ve been saved with just a little bit of imagination.
On the flip side, sometimes we so doggedly hang on to the past that we fail to take advantage of the opportunities of the present. You still hear grumbling about the newfound diversity of the Italian Market, for example, without hearing about how the new businesses have helped expand the market’s lifespan.
To survive and thrive, we need both. We need to be a little more like Joe Groh — to have pride in our foundations while evolving to meet the challenges of the time and place we live in. It’s not always an easy balancing act. Joe, I think, has found that balance with remarkable grace in the face of (at times) fiery criticism.
One thing, at least, has never changed: He still makes a hell of a cheesesteak. Joe’s opens on Wednesday in Fishtown. Go out and show your support.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.