EARLY LAST AUGUST, Philadelphia magazine got a phone call. Phone calls aren’t unusual at the magazine, especially in early August, when their volume increases exponentially in response to our annual “Best of Philly” issue. Some of these excess calls are thank-yous. Others aren’t. This particular call fit into the latter category.
The caller, who wouldn’t give his name, wanted to share his feelings about the mag’s choice for “Best Cheesesteak.” The winner was Wit or Witout, a new spot near Frankford and Cottman. The caller was apparently not a fan, and what began as constructive, slightly coarse criticism turned into a rant, then a rage, and then threats. He said he could eliminate Wit or Witout if he wanted to. He called Wit or Witout’s 34-year-old owner, Nicole DiZio, “a girl” who just wanted to “franchise,” spitting out “franchise” like a curse. He said that girl was going down.
To the locals who consume and vend it, Philadelphia’s official sandwich can be an intensely personal matter. Your cheese-steak preference reveals your taste buds’ proclivities, sure, but also your family tradition, neighborhood pride, possibly your idea of patriotism — and likely your concept of authenticity. Are you Pat’s? Geno’s? George’s? Campo’s? Whiz? Provolone? Do you head to Tony Luke’s before the game — or line up at Jim’s after the bars? Have you nibbled Four Seasons’ cheesesteak spring roll, ordered Domino’s “Philly Cheese Steak” pie, stocked up on Steak-umms, splurged when Barclay Prime had a $100 version? Tell us who makes your sandwich, and we’ll tell you who you are.
So without giving too much credit to an anonymous phone harasser, the jerk had a point. If a cheesesteak novice can open up shop, snap her fingers, count herself among the industry’s one-named power players, the men with grill marks for battle scars and onion grease for sweat, and we locals flock in — what does that say about who we are?
For all our cheesesteak passion, Philly has never turned out a big-time franchise operation like, say, Massachusetts has with Dunkin’ Donuts, or Seattle with Starbucks. Even our most vaunted steak-stand heroes haven’t expanded beyond a few shops — Steve’s Prince of Steaks has three, Jim’s has four, Geno’s and Pat’s are still one apiece. But if anyone can do it, it’s Nicole DiZio, backed by her pretzel-shop-franchising husband and, more recently, by franchisee John Tumolo, the guy who brought a Rita’s Water Ice to a street corner near you. This trio thinks Philadelphia needs a sleeker, cleaner, nicer, ego-less version of a corner steak stand. They just may be right.
PERCHED ON A gray counter stool inside Wit or Witout’s second location, one wintry week before the shop is due to open, Nicole DiZio is definitely not the cheesesteak vendor next door. Today, she’s wearing a pair of boot-cut Citizens jeans that must be a size 25, pale pink lip gloss that matches a pale pink manicure, and a pair of diamond double C’s on her earlobes. Her long California-blond hair is blown out. Her eyebrows form two perfect parentheses. When asked about her rivals, her tanned forehead furrows, and her hazel eyes narrow.
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.”
THE QUESTION IS, are Philadelphians ready for the next level? If the first-day sales — more than 1,000 cheesesteaks — at WoW’s second location are any indication, we are. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, Pat’s, Geno’s — the big boys — aren’t going away. They’re our gastronomic Liberty Bell. We’ll still make our late-night, pre-game and post-bar pilgrimages to pay homage to our cholesterol-peddling landmarks. We’ll still define ourselves by our unflinching reaction when the massive, tattooed guy at the counter glares instead of asking, “May I take your order?” But when we’re late for our kid’s tennis match, or after the Phils go into extra innings, or, if all goes according to DiZio’s expansion plans, when we’re driving home from a morning meeting in Cherry Hill, we’ll pull into the parking lot of a Wit or Witout, and we’ll pay six bucks for food that satisfies both our ancestral cravings and our modern sensibilities.
Perhaps DiZio is exactly what our sloppy, workaday culinary masterpiece needs to break into the big time, to develop beyond mom-and-pop shops, to expand beyond the Delaware Valley. Could be she’s the one entrepreneur who’ll see beyond the grease and attitude to a bigger picture. Maybe all the cheesesteak needed was a good woman. Maybe when Nicole DiZio says, “You know, there’s no queen of steaks yet. I’ll be it,” she’s only half joking.