On the Side | Rick's vs. the Market.

The steak-lease stakes: Let's slap on perspective

Posted: July 12, 2007

The conventioneering teachers and tourists who lined up at Rick's Steaks in the Reading Terminal Market last week may have been mystified by the petitions affixed to a clipboard by the cash register.

The petition implored customers to oppose the "eviction" of the cheesesteak stand after 25 years of service - "to the market and fellow merchants, its loyal customers, and the city of Philadelphia."

By Monday morning, 2,300 had signed.

Whether "eviction" was the correct term or not, one might quibble. But the fact was that Rick's lease, indeed, was not being renewed: The market board had lined up another steak (and pork) sandwich purveyor, the celebrated Tony Luke's.

"Rick" is Rick Olivieri, in his early 40s, a member of the fractious Pat's Steaks clan that claims paternity of the cheesesteak, now 75 years - or according to conflicting family accounts, 77 years - old.

The unthinkable may occur before you read this. Olivieri and the market's honchos could sit down, smoke the peace pipe, and life at the grill on the market's 12th Street flank could continue uninterrupted. (Rick's lease otherwise expires at the end of July.)

But in Philadelphia, either through a staggering failure of imagination or, perhaps, the potency of a culinary cliche (or, classic?), the betting is that this little drama will drag out, providing, as the dog days oppress us, occasion for breathless update or, as the parties lawyer up, copious legal smoke-blowing.

If history is a guide, there would be in such a scenario no deficit of passion or apoplexy or ricocheting national attention, the summoning of which is reflexively accomplished by uttering the words Philly cheesesteak in the presence of a bored morning-show producer.

You will recall, surely, the global coverage (forget about WMDs!) of John Kerry's inopportune request for "Swiss" on his steak at Pat's in the summer of 2003.

And just a summer ago, Philadelphia got its urban redneck credentials burnished when Joey Vento, of Pat's rival Geno's, posted a sign on his South Philly shop requiring that customers order in English. (Not that a lot of Mexicans were ordering in the first place, from what I saw.)

They are a colorful, mouthy lot, all right, the city's second-and third-generation steak royalty, spinning the cheesesteak's mythology into gold - into personalized Hummers and homes on Jersey horse farms, into Shore houses and even crooning careers.

In the case of the Olivieris, Frank, the grandson of Harry, who was the brother of Pat Olivieri and cofounder of Pat's Steaks, is suing Rick (the grandson of Pat, and now owner of the aforementioned Rick's Steaks, and its seasonal window in Citizens Bank Park), for unfairly using its trademark "Pat's King of Steaks" and the iconic crown logo.

But the courtroom, of course, is an unseemly, and uncertain, venue for settling the fate of such a populist sandwich. So it is likely that in the matter of Rick's vs. The Market Management the more determinative venue will be the court of public opinion.

If that, in fact, is the case, customers may want to consider the management's claim that Rick's was dead set against accepting the negotiated terms of new leases requiring the reporting of gross sales, newly higher rents for lunch stands (to continue subsidizing lower-margin fresh-food purveyors), and - to keep the place from looking like a ghost town - extended hours (until 6 p.m.) the last days of the shopping week.

Those customers may want to consider Olivieri's counter-claim that he was never offered an actual lease document, that Tony Luke's is a demi-chain, and that Olivieri was singled out because of his aggressive leadership of the Merchants Association.

But before they sign on the clipboard, they might want to weigh the prerogatives, as well, of an individual steak-stand owner against - as it says at the top of the page - the collective interests of "the market and fellow merchants, its loyal customers, and the city of Philadelphia."

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com.

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