No offense, but they prefer the original Chink's

Scott Longacre (top) and James Chandler, with Pro Signs of Downingtown, lower the Chink's Steaks sign. It has offended some for its name, which came from the nickname of its founder.
Scott Longacre (top) and James Chandler, with Pro Signs of Downingtown, lower the Chink's Steaks sign. It has offended some for its name, which came from the nickname of its founder. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 03, 2013

As the hydraulic lift rose one story to eye level with the Chink's Steaks sign, a few yards away Robert Quinn stood on the curb, venting - loudly - to his girlfriend.

"I mean, he's ignoring the 10,000 signatures on the petition to keep the name? Now, he's giving in to political correctness!"

Quinn, a 59-year-old truck driver from the Wissinoming neighborhood, represented the overwhelming sentiment among residents who showed up Monday morning to witness Chink's rechristening as Joe's - a small but symbolic blip in the city's history.

From its dawning in 1949, when the first sliced onions were slapped onto the grill, the cheesesteak shop on Torresdale Avenue had been known as Chink's.

No offense intended. The owner, Samuel "Chink" Sherman, had almond-shaped eyes. He had been going by the nickname since grade school.

Back then, ethnic slurs slipped off the tongue as smoothly as melted American cheese. Those who were insulted rarely complained, except to fellow members of their own tribe.

Today, the city is more diverse and sophisticated, and the language of bigotry is no longer acceptable.

At least not publicly.

At least among most Philadelphians.

In Wissinoming, however, once almost exclusively a white working-class enclave, the passing of Chink's has stirred deep resentment. Defending the rightness of the name and the right to maintain it, residents mourned times when, they said, everyone had thicker skin and people were not forced to walk on verbal eggshells.

"I just think it's ridiculous," said Eleanor McGonigal as she sat on a step, watching the sign come down. "C'mon," said McGonigal, a 60-year-old warehouse worker who has lived in the neighborhood all her life. "Cracker Barrel hasn't had to change their name. I mean, that could be made into a racist thing."

Rumors had circulated that the shop's owner was new and wanted a fresh start. But Joe Groh, the 50-year-old owner and now namesake of Joe's Steaks & Soda Shop, started working at Chink's when he was 16, coming in after school to slice meat for Sherman. Groh and his wife, Denise, grew up a few blocks from the shop and lived with their children in the three-bedroom apartment above it for years.

In 1999, he bought the shop from Sherman's widow, along with the neon sign visible at night from four blocks away. In 2003, when that sign fell apart, he replaced it with an exact replica, minus the neon.

"I'm glad it's in one piece," he said, watching the workers gingerly slide the $1,500 relic onto the truck bed. "I'm not throwing it out. And I'm not selling it. I'm keeping it in storage."

The first hint that he might have to rename the business came in 2003, Groh said, when an Asian American student called to complain that the name was a disgrace.

"She had never been here. She wasn't a customer," said Groh. "I told her, 'No. It's my business.' "

When he tried to expand into South Philadelphia in 2008, he encountered greater cultural sensitivity and changed that restaurant's name. But people were unforgiving and after six months he shut it down.

In the Northeast, many loyal customers said they understood the objections to the name, but believed it deserved a grandfathered pass.

Others, like William Ulrich, said the passing of "Chink's" symbolizes the neighborhood's decline.

"This place has a tan," said Ulrich, a 51-year-old postal worker, who wore a wireless phone device in his ear and shorts that revealed a large cross "in the colors of the American flag" tattooed on his calf.

Over the last 15 years, he said, crime has soared, and he blamed African Americans and Hispanics who have moved in, especially those in government-subsidized housing.

"If you say anything, you're a racist, when you're just a realist," he said. "You're supposed to be politically correct? Try walking down Torresdale Avenue after 8 p.m. without getting robbed."

It would be wrong, though, to assume that the only opponents of the name change are white.

"The man it was named for passed away," said Terrell Jenkins, who is black. "Out of respect for him, I don't think they should have changed it."

Jenkins, 44, blind from a bad drug reaction, is living on disability since his recent release from state prison after serving 15 years. If the shop had been named with a slur against blacks, "that would be offensive," he said. "But Chink was a nickname. It could have been a term of endearment."

For Groh, the decision was practical. He is looking to the future, he said. His son has joined the business and if they ever want to try again to branch out - and they likely will - they needed a new name.

"It's a good and dramatic change," said State Rep. Mark Cohen (D., Phila.), who came to show his support. "I understand people who want the past to govern the present, but there comes a point when you have to be responsive to changes that exist in the city."

The newly dubbed Joe's Steaks is one of several eponymous businesses near the intersection of Torresdale and Benner Street - Rodriguez Grocery, Jack's Pub, Crazy Joe's Mini Mart.

At the cash register behind bulletproof glass at Crazy Joe's, an Iranian immigrant said he was glad Chink's was renamed, but would not comment further or identify himself. Farther down the street, a manicurist at a Vietnamese nail salon said she knew nothing about the controversy.

Much of the city did, though. The news broke in time for Good Friday, normally one of the slowest days of the year. By noon, there was a line out the door. Groh sold a record 600 sandwiches, along with 25 dozen T-shirts with the "Chink's" logo.

"I've got 50 more orders on our website, too. I'll keep selling them for a while," he said.

For the rechristening, he, his wife, and their staff wore black T-shirts bearing the new logo - a retro 1950s design.

"I'm a little sad, but I'm ready to put my legacy on it," he said, putting his arm around his wife.

She was at peace with the change and even saw a bright side, she said:

"Now, I can be called 'Mrs. Joe' instead of 'Mrs. Chink.' "


Contact Melissa Dribben at 215 854 2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com or @dribbenonphilly on Twitter

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