One Philly Steak With? Better Order in English

A sign in the window of Geno's Steaks of South Philadelphia declares, "This is America — When ordering, speak English." City authorities are now investigating whether the sign violates local anti-discrimination laws. Joel Rose of member station WHYY reports.

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

CHADWICK: And I'm Alex Chadwick.

In Philadelphia, lunch is developing political overtones. The owner of one of the city's best-known cheese steak joints has posted a sign asking that customers order in English only. Some call that policy offensive and possible illegal. From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE reporting:

The line at Geno's Steaks moves fast.

Unidentified Man #1: Can I help you?

Unidentified Man #2: Four whiz with.

Unidentified Man #1: Got four whiz with. Thank you, that'll be $28.00.

ROSE: For the uninitiated, that's four cheese steaks with cheese whiz and onions made to order on the grill.

(Soundbite of kitchen sounds)

Unidentified Man #1: I'm kind of hoping the line (unintelligible). I don't plan to be here all day.

ROSE: You can also get the sandwich with American or Provolone, just don't ask for queso.

Mr. JOEY VENTO (owner, Geno's Steaks): You can speak any language you want, but the common language of the surviving America is English. So I don't see what that, what is so hard about it.

ROSE: Six months ago, owner Joey Vento posted a sign in his take-out window that reads, This is America; when ordering, speak English. Vento says his grandparents didn't have any choice when they immigrated to south Philly from Sicily in the 1920s. He's worried that it's too easy for newer immigrants in the neighborhood to get by without learning English.

Mr. VENTO: Today, you got bi-lingual. You got to press, too, for Spanish, which I think is really, really terrible. As a Spanish people, they are never going to excel, because it's easy to stay in your own language. So you're second generation just might become on welfare, and then that becomes my problem.

ROSE: Vento says he's never actually refused service to anyone who couldn't order in English. But judging by the long line in front of Geno's, a lot of his customers seem to agree with the policy, including Kris Glutch(ph) of North Wales, Pennsylvania.

Ms. KRIS GLUTCH: I think if you're going to live somewhere, and that's the official language, you should learn the official language. If you choose to live here and choose to have the benefits of the country, then you should at least learn the language.

ROSE: You won't find an English only sign next door to Geno's at a tacoria called La Lupe. That's where Al Jacalucci(ph) is eating lunch.

Mr. AL JACALUCCI: I'm sort of embarrassed by the sign, frankly. I don't think it's appropriate. Whenever I've been in a foreign place, people have always helped me out in terms of trying to speak the language or trying to understand it. And this just doesn't seem very hospitable.

ROSE: The owner is a native of Pueblo, Mexico. Gabriel Bravo(ph) moved his family to South Philly from Queens four years ago.

Mr. GABRIEL BRAVO (Owner, La Lupe): This is a country of immigrants. Here, sometimes I have a customer from other countries and person who don't speak English. We try to help them, and just help them to - you know, their (unintelligible) will come.

ROSE: South Philadelphia's city councilman says he would like all immigrants to feel welcome in his district. He wrote a letter asking Joey Vento to remove the sign. The city's commission on human relations is taking a more forceful approach. The commission filed a complaint against Geno's on Monday.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

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