The Totally Accidental Success Story of Delco Steaks
From non-existent to dominant in less than two years, Delco Steaks has become a force in the whiz-wit’ game.
It was The Beard’s first night playing in Philly: Wednesday, March 2, 2022. With 15 minutes to go before tip-off, bands of rabid fans were still pouring into the Wells Fargo Center to watch the Sixers teach the Knicks a thing or two about the sport — and, notably, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain’s legendary hundred-point game.
“Sixers fans are always late,” a security guard said when I mentioned that the arena seemed half full in spite of the excitement surrounding James Harden’s much-hyped home debut. “Just wait. There will be 20,000 people in here soon. You’ll see.” There were more than 21,000, it turned out.
Fans wearing fake beards as a tribute to Harden’s famously bushy facial hair guzzled $13 domestic beers as they hooted and hollered in the main concourse level, where food and drink are sold from walk-up counters. With the clock counting down to game time, a surprisingly small smattering of prospective diners eyed the menu in front of Danny Meyer’s global burger chain Shake Shack. A more respectable number of jerseyed ticket holders waited in line for offerings from well-established Philly brands Federal Donuts and Chickie’s & Pete’s.
But the longest line by far during my tour of the concourse was at Delco Steaks, the first vendor you see when walking through the mobbed Broad Street entrance. The space was previously occupied by Old City sandwich shop Campo’s, and after Campo’s left in 2021, a Delco Steaks fan connected the owners with the Wells Fargo Center. One of those owners, Steve Reynolds, stood at the back of the line, gleefully snapping photos of the lengthy stretch to post on social media.
“We’re going to be nuts tonight,” he added as we walked through a door that took us behind the counter, to where a dozen employees worked frantically to keep up with the intense demand.
“We’re already doing crazy volume, and the game hasn’t even started yet,” bragged Sal Vito, the general manager of the stand, as a bit of a verbal altercation arose between two of the cooks.
“That guy is garbage!” one irate steak-maker sniped about the other to Reynolds. “I told him to do the onions a fucking hour ago!” The boss pulled him aside to calm him down. Hey, what would a slammed cheesesteak operation at a jam-packed basketball game in South Philly be without a little kitchen trash talk, right?
By the end of the night, Harden had led his new team to a 123-108 victory, contributing 26 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. And at Delco Steaks, Reynolds told me, the sales were unprecedented: “We’re breaking all kinds of records.”
Not at all unimpressive for a company that was literally unheard-of two years ago — and one that was never supposed to exist but expects to have six locations by the end of this year, making it the most prolific non-franchised cheesesteak operation in the region. In the whiz-wit’ game, that makes rookie Delco Steaks a freaking All-Star.
Delco’s accidental pandemic sandwich success story starts a few years back, in 2019, when Steve, with his brother Nick, who owns a consulting company, and Nick’s childhood friend John McKenzie, a builder, were sitting around having drinks at Barnaby’s, a perfectly average, nondescript bar and restaurant on West Chester Pike in Havertown. The agenda for their meeting: to discuss the prospect of opening their own bar two miles up the pike in Broomall, a section of Marple Township. The conversation had nothing to do with cheesesteaks.
While many Delco towns have more than their fair share of bars, Marple had none at the time. Township ordinances allowed beer distributors and state-controlled wine and spirits shops to operate within its boundaries, but life for Marple’s 24,000 residents was otherwise dry. No cocktail clubs. No glass of wine with dinner at your favorite local restaurant, unless you brought it yourself. Not even supermarket sales, which have become pretty much ubiquitous in the five years since the state finally decided to make your life a wee bit more convenient. (The one exception to this no-bars rule was the local country club, which managed to wangle some sort of special permission, as country clubs do.)
Then, in May 2019, Giant, which wanted to open a supermarket in Broomall later that year, successfully lobbied to land a referendum on Marple Township’s primary ballot that gave voters a chance to weigh in on their dry status. Sixty-three percent of the residents who voted on the measure said to bring on the booze, and suddenly, a handful of liquor licenses became available.
Sensing an opportunity, the partners plotted to open a restaurant that would offer better bar food than most Delco joints along with an elevated beer and cocktail program — what respectable publications would have called a “gastropub” a decade ago. The restaurant would eventually be called Marple Public House. Steve, who’d worked in several Delco eateries before getting into the boring insurance biz, would be the operations guy; Nick would be the main money man; John would take their dream and make it a physical reality.
There was just one annoying problem: parking. The property they bought for the bar — a former hair salon — was just off West Chester Pike on Sproul Road. Its parking lot is tiny. And street parking in the neighborhood is tricky. If you build it, they will come, sure, probably-maybe, but only if parking is a relatively stress-free experience. This is the suburbs.
Just in front of that building, though, right on the pike, was another, much smaller building that housed a run-of-the-mill diner called Chubby’s, which had replaced a not-so-run-of-the-mill diner that inexplicably went by two names, Jean’s Luncheonette and Pete’s On the Pike. (It’s Delco. They do weird shit.) And Chubby’s had a decent-sized parking lot. Nick walked in to talk to the owners, who had taken over the restaurant space less than a year before and now happened to be looking to make an exit. They were done. So the Marple Public House team leased the building and lot. Parking problem solved. Except now, there was this extra building they had no use for. They toyed around with some ideas and decided to open a stand-alone cheesesteak spot in the space.
“There are plenty of pizza places around here that serve cheesesteaks,” says Steve. “But we wanted to focus on cheesesteaks. Better cheesesteaks. I figured as long as we didn’t lose money on the cheesesteaks, why not give it a try?”
Little did Steve and his partners know that this small cheesesteak shop that only came into existence because they needed 10 more parking spots and whose mantra was “Don’t lose money” would save them all.
They hatched their plan for Marple Public House while eyeing an early 2020 opening. Alas, opening a bar in 2020 wouldn’t be as easy as they first thought. There are always delays and uncertainties, as any tavern keeper will tell you. But nobody saw COVID-19 coming, and nobody could imagine the devastating effect it would have on the hospitality industry.
With Marple Public House on a pandemic pause, the team dumped all their time and effort into the shop that would be known as Delco Steaks. Its first day in business wound up being March 19, 2020 — a.k.a. the day the state shut down.
There were some exceptions to that shutdown order; for instance, restaurants could do deliveries and serve takeout. That meant Delco Steaks could operate as the team always intended it to — it was never meant to be a sit-down place. And once word got out of a new cheesesteak shop in Delco — one with the gall to name itself after the prideful working-class county that housed it, basically standing up and saying, “Yo Delco, I got your cheesesteak right here” — customers showed up. What they found when they did wasn’t your average cheesesteak.
Average cheesesteaks abound in Delco. Actually, I’m being far too generous. Lousy cheesesteaks abound in Delco, just as they do throughout the region, and that’s without even getting into the so-called “Philly cheesesteaks” you’ll find from Malaysia (no, seriously, I encountered one there) to Montana.
As for cheesesteaks in Delco, I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that the ratio of lousy cheesesteaks to decent cheesesteaks to really good cheesesteaks there is roughly 80:6:1. Delco Steaks unmistakably falls in the really-good-cheesesteaks column.
What was clear from the outset was that the owners were using much better meat and rolls than most joints do. Their seasoning blend, which they tell me is proprietary, takes the sandwich up another notch. And each cheesesteak is crafted with a little extra Delco care — some might call it love. Sandwiches are made and portioned out individually — there’s no big steaming pile of meat like you’ll see through the window at Jim’s on South Street. Their two-foot namesake steak — you just ask for “a Delco” — seats a pound and a quarter of precisely measured, Pennsylvania-farmed prime rib eye on a chewy-but-not-too-chewy roll from Carangi Baking Company in South Philly. Cheese options include provolone, mozzarella, Whiz, of course, and Cooper Sharp, the fan favorite. The two-footer cost $18 when they opened. Today — thanks, supply-chain woes and inflation and, well, probably their popularity — it’s $24.95.
A lot of people are willing to pay that, because a lot of people say this is the best cheesesteak in Delco. Some argue it’s the best cheesesteak in the Greater Philadelphia area. And we can’t let it go unsaid that this magazine, which doesn’t give out a Best of Philly cheesesteak award each year, reserving the honor for when a truly notable entry comes along, bestowed the hallowed honorific on Delco Steaks in 2021.
Naturally, when you’re the best (or arguably the best) at anything, you have haters. In the unruly world of cheesesteaks, this is especially true, and perhaps particularly so in Delco, a county known for citizens who say what’s on their minds. Always. In those early days, there was no shortage of callouts and complaints in Delco Facebook groups: Worst cheesesteaks ever! Gristly A.F.! Overhyped! Place sucks! One citizen-reviewer even got out a tape measure to prove his two-foot Delco was more like a one-foot, 10-inch Delco.
“I used to take it so personally,” says Steve.
There was also a bit of county-wide confusion and controversy, since competitor Delco’s Original Steaks and Hoagies, which this interloper had nothing to do with, had been around for a long time. Fans lined up on either side, but Delco Steaks emerged with a trademark on its name.
Of course reviews of cheesesteaks — good or bad — are, like all opinions, subjective. Measurement of success in this world is less so. Within a week of Delco Steaks’ opening, the phone lines were jammed. Wait times for a Saturday-night delivery were (and still are, occasionally) in the two-hour range. And it hasn’t been because of the widespread difficulty of “finding good help these days,” as some restaurateurs like to say. It’s more that demand has been so high and the space is so small. Steve, Nick and John had to install another grill in a garage across the parking lot to try and keep up.
Meanwhile, the partners broke ground on a Delco Steaks in Ridley Township, complete with DelcoLand, a Delco-themed 18-hole mini-golf course. That property opened in November 2021, about a month after the Wells Fargo Center stand debuted. “There’s a ton of walk-up in Ridley,” says Steve. “Sometimes we just have to take the phone off the hook.”
A Media outpost, in a former Swiss Farms convenience store, is expected to open by the end of this year; another debuts this spring at Bald Birds Brewing Company in Audubon. And the partners recently signed a lease on the Lower Merion side of City Avenue next to a Wendy’s, directly across from the campus of St. Joe’s. They hope to have that space slinging steaks by the time students show up for classes in September. (Marple Public House, by the way, is finally up and running, its scrunched parking lot ingeniously expanded by connection to that of the original Delco Steaks.)
The success of the brand is strong, and expansion is moving quickly. Is it too much, too fast? The partners say their eventual goal is to franchise Delco Steaks across the country — something no local cheesesteak brand has done successfully. Even local expansion proved challenging for some cheesesteak and non-cheesesteak Philly operations. Tony Luke’s growth imploded with in-family squabbling and a lawsuit. Pat’s Steaks, inventor of the famed sandwich, also saw its expansion efforts erupt in a family feud; today, there’s just one shop, the first. And many years ago, the original Nick’s Roast Beef in South Philly embarked on a quick-growth attempt that’s left us with so-called Nick’s in Old City and Northeast Philly that have nothing to do with the original and turn out food embarrassing to its legacy.
“We need to be really careful,” Steve admits. “I remember being in Ocean City, Maryland, and trying a Tony Luke’s, and I was just like, what is this? The quality just wasn’t there. Growth is great. Money is good. But it’s also just so easy for it all to come crumbling down.”
He’s right, of course. The restaurant biz is notoriously unpredictable and can be particularly harsh on those who grow too big for their britches. For an upstart cheesesteak joint born of the pandemic’s woes and a need for parking to come out a winner is about as likely as — well, you’ll forgive the cliché, but this is, after all, a story about the most clichéd Philly food ever. As likely as a stumblebum like Rocky Balboa becoming the heavyweight champion of the world.
Published as “The Accidental Cheesesteak” in the May 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.