It was a small sign, showing an American flag and a stern eagle, occupying a rectangle of window no larger than a hoagie roll. But glued to the front of Geno’s Steaks, the Philadelphia cheesesteak shop, it cried out for reaction with just eight words: “This Is America When Ordering Please ‘Speak English.’”
Posted by Geno’s owner, Joseph Vento, in December 2005 — before sparking a debate about language, discrimination and immigration in the early summer of 2006 — it sat in the storefront window for a decade, until at some point Vento’s son Geno took it down.
After the sign’s absence was noticed by a Billy Penn reporter on Wednesday, the shop acknowledged it was removed without fanfare before July’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. On Thursday, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Helen Ubiñas wrote about ordering cheesesteaks at Geno’s for the first time in years — “Dos, con Whiz, por favor.” It worked.
Spanish would not fly in 2006, however. Only English would.
The sign, of course, was not just about language. Here was Wolf Blitzer on CNN, in June 2006: “The cheesesteak is a symbol of Philadelphia, but now it’s a symbol of the battle over illegal immigration as well, and that battle is raging in the City of Brotherly Love.”
Vento argued his message was tough love from a colorful son of Italian immigrants to South Philly. On the subject of immigrants who did not speak English, Vento told the Associated Press in 2006, “They don’t know how lucky they are.”
“All we’re asking them to do is learn the English language,” he said. “We’re out to help these people, but they’ve got to help themselves, too.”
For many, however, the sign was more divisive than encouraging.
Rachel Lawton, then acting executive director of Philadelphia’s Commission on Human Relations, told the AP in 2006 that the message discriminated against non-English-speaking patrons and therefore violated the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance.
A spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union told the Philadelphia Inquirer that although the cheesesteak shop “has a right to express its opinion, however offensive,” it was close to making a “public accommodation” unavailable to everyone.
In an editorial at the time, the Inquirer concluded the move was “boneheaded.”
Some began to wonder why the story had such legs; Vento himself began to decline interviews shortly after word of his sign spread to national news.
But food has always been wrapped up in identity. (On as much as gut level as a cultural one: You chomp it up, after all, and squeeze it into becoming a part of you.) Fights over food often reflect political debates du jour, which, recently, have been pastries with a controversial swirl.
In 2015, the Oregon bakery that refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple paid out $144,000 in damages; a Colorado bakery did not discriminate in 2014, courts ruled, for refusing to write “Homosexuality is a detestable sin” per a customer’s request; a gay pastor was caught faking a slur on a Whole Foods cake; a California bakery responded to a wave of social media backlash for posting a Facebook photo of a transgender “Ken doll cake” in August.
It continues: In October, a Portland shop was accused of racism after naming a cupcake with an Oreo baked inside “Mr. President.”
As for Geno’s, by 2008, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations had ruled its message was not discriminatory. Vento died in 2011, though the sign remained. In a 2013 statement to Philadelphia Magazine, the public relations firm Neff Associates explained why the message outlived the man who made it famous.
“As you know, Geno’s is under new management since the passing of Joey Vento. Geno Vento, Joey’s openly gay son is the new owner and operator and I think it is important to inform you, that he does not share all of the polarizing views his Father was famous for,” wrote Neff director Kylie Flett.
Flett added: “I can also tell you that we STRONGLY recommended to Geno Vento that the ‘speak english’ sign be removed also. Our recommendation is currently under consideration by the Geno’s Team. Unfortunately, Joey’s dying wish to his son was for the sign to remain, and Geno at this time is choosing to respect his Father’s request.” A sign that read, “press 2 for deportation,” was removed by 2013.
And by the time of the convention, Geno Vento had “decided to move on from the sign,” a representative for the steak shop said to the Associated Press.
“It’s not about a sign,” read a statement from Geno’s Steaks to the AP on Thursday. “It’s about what you do and what your mark in life is, and Geno wants to change that mark in life.”