Agency Warns Cheesesteak Joint Over Policy

The Associated Press
Monday, June 12, 2006; 8:57 PM

PHILADELPHIA -- An English-only ordering policy at one of the city's most famous cheesesteak joints drew a warning Monday from officials who threatened to file a discrimination complaint.

The city's Commission on Human Relations planned to argue that the policy at Geno's Steaks discourages customers of certain backgrounds from eating there, said Rachel Lawton, acting executive director.

Geno's owner Joseph Vento posted two small signs at his shop in south Philadelphia proclaiming: "This is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING 'PLEASE SPEAK ENGLISH.'"

Lawton said that violates the city's Fair Practices Ordinance, which prohibits discrimination in employment, public accommodation and housing.

"It's discouraging patronage by non-English speaking customers because of their national origin or ancestry," Lawton said.

Vento, 66, whose grandparents struggled to learn English after arriving from Sicily in the 1920s, said Monday that he is not discriminating and has no intention of giving in.

"I would say they would have to handcuff me and take me out because I'm not taking it down," Vento said.

He said no customer had ever been turned away because of the policy.

Vento said he posted the sign about six months ago because of concern over the debate on immigration reform and the increasing number of people in the area who cannot order in English. The historically Italian community has become more diverse as immigrants from Asia and Latin America have moved in.

Lawton said the restaurant would probably be served with the complaint on Monday or Tuesday. She did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press on Monday evening.

Lawton said the restaurant could be ordered to take down the signs or face fines. The dispute could end up in court.

"Let them do what they want to," Vento said. "When it comes, then we'll deal with it."

© 2006 The Associated Press