Owner of Chink's Steaks yields to pressure, will change shop name

The new name and logo, at left. "It's time. It's a different era," says Groh, who bought the shop from Sherman's family.
The new name and logo, at left. "It's time. It's a different era," says Groh, who bought the shop from Sherman's family. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 31, 2013

To a steak shop in Philadelphia's Wissinoming section that remains pretty much as it was when it opened 64 years ago, big change is coming Monday.

Chink's Steaks on Torresdale Avenue is taking on a new name: Joe's Steaks & Soda Shop.

Some will consider it a long-overdue act of racial sensitivity at a business whose name - the founder's nickname since childhood and a slur against Chinese - has drawn fire from Asian Americans. Others no doubt will protest the switch, including regulars who have griped about any shift in how things are done at the retro-1950s eatery, even the addition of french fries to the menu about four years ago.

Some might even think it's an April Fool's prank. But this is no joke.

"It's going to make a lot of people happy; it's going to make a lot of people sad," said owner Joe Groh, 50, of Cinnaminson, who has worked at the sandwich joint since he was a student at Frankford High School and bought it from Samuel "Chink" Sherman's family in 1999. "It's time. It's a different era."

Though customers collected about 10,000 signatures on a petition to keep the Chink's name when Groh was under pressure to do away with it about 10 years ago, the criticism has kept up, mostly on social media.

" 'How can you go to a place like that?' " asked a recent post on the restaurant's Facebook page, Groh recalled in an interview this week.

He had refused to change the name in the past out of fear it would lead to the end of his business. He worried that loyalists of Chink's ribeye steak sandwiches, egg creams, and extra-thick milkshakes would assume the restaurant was under new ownership and go elsewhere.

Now, Groh's concern is that the notorious name might be the greater business impediment.

"I'm still here, the sandwich is still here," he said, seated in one of his shop's six original wooden booths - alternatives to the stools at the counter. "Everything's the same but the name."

Out front, the blue-and-white sign with Chink's in red cursive script is expected to come down in time for Monday's 10:30 a.m. opening. A new sign in teal, brown, and orange - with Joe's in white block letters - will go up.

Far from a limelight-seeking guy, Groh is not relishing being the new namesake. Then again, he also doesn't want more of the heartburn the Chink's name has caused him.

That began in earnest after a positive mention in 2002 by Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan and a Best of Philly (for cheesesteaks) designation that year by Philadelphia Magazine. The publicity vastly elevated what had been a low-profile existence for Groh's shop in an oft-overlooked blue-collar neighborhood.

By the end of 2003, a then-21-year-old Susannah Park from West Philadelphia heard about the steak shop from friends and called Groh to explain that the name was hurtful to the Asian community. Groh refused to change it.

The controversy got media coverage. Soon, the Anti-Defamation League was urging a name change, as were city human-relations officials, Groh said. In the end, he decided to do nothing - and it cost him.

A 2008 expansion to Columbus Boulevard and Christian Street failed because of the name, Groh said. Opposition to it from the Queen Village Business Association and the property owner caused Groh to take down the sign before he opened the restaurant. He was out of business within six months.

"I do not want to go through that again," he said this week.

Joined in the business by his wife, Denise, and son Patrick, 24, Groh said he had been thinking about the future and possible expansion.

"I worry that it wouldn't be accepted, and I wouldn't be able to succeed," he said, adding that he suspects the Chink's name has kept him out of contention for inclusion in professional sports venues.

In a letter to the editor published in the Philadelphia Daily News in February 2004, Mildred Sherman, widow of the steak shop's founder, said classmates gave her husband his nickname when he was 7 because he had almond-shaped eyes. Most everyone who knew him continued to call him Chink until his death in 1997, she said, noting that the name is even etched on his gravestone. Its use in the family business was never intended to offend, she said.

"We sold food, not racism, and we employed people of every origin," Mildred Sherman, now deceased, wrote.

When told of Groh's decision to rename the shop Joe's, the woman who hoped for such a concession 10 years ago - now Susannah Ayscue - said she was really happy but considered it bittersweet because it took so long.

Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United, never ate at Chink's but might now that the name is changing.

"Before, why would I subject myself to that?" she asked, calling the Chink's name "clearly hate speech. When a business uses a word like this, it's especially hurtful because . . . it's a signal that it's OK."

Groh hopes most customers will pay more attention to something else new on Monday: the monthly shake flavor. It's the Phillies Grand Slam through April in honor of baseball season's arrival.


Chink's Steaks, a Torresdale Avenue fixture since 1949, lets you step back in time. But owner Joe Groh explains why he's making the long-overdue move of changing the name to Joe's Steaks & Soda Shop. www.philly.com/steakshop


Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow @mastrud on Twitter.

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