On a recent Saturday, the Sixers were on TV, and the bar was packed as middle school teacher Melanie Manuel asked to get the remaining half of her cheesesteak wrapped up “to go.”
“Oh,” said her server after a half-second pause. “You mean, you want it for take away?”
These small linguistic differences — the way Brits and Yanks can be like chalk-and-cheese — are the only major translation problem at Passyunk Avenue, a Philly-themed dive bar that recently opened in a posh part of Central London.
Manuel, who taught Spanish at Science Leadership Academy before jumping the pond to work at The American School in London, now rents out her home on 10th and Christian Streets, just blocks away from the Philly’s Passyunk Avenue. She comes to Fitzrovia’s Passyunk Avenue when she’s feeling a little homesick or simply has a hankering for a cheesesteak.
The bar is the brainchild of JP Teti, a Trenton native with deep roots in Philly, where his grandparents grew up and relatives still live. Teti lovingly calls his Passyunk Avenue a dive: The walls are covered in Eagles and Phillies gear and all sorts of kitschy Philly memorabilia — think LOVE statue stencils and collages showing Ben Franklin, Rocky, and Boathouse Row — along with a couple of flat-screen TVs and neon bar signs.
If things didn’t look so new and the signs didn’t say “way out” instead of “exit,” you could swear it’s just another sports bar in Pennsport or Girard Estates. Which is to say, it looks nothing like anything else in London.
The idea of opening a Philly-branded bar in England started, as so many good ideas do, after a couple of drinks.
“We were drinking one too many beers, and I said, ‘Let’s go get cheesesteaks somewhere — there’s got to be a place in London that serves cheesesteaks,’” said Teti. “There was nothing. We couldn’t find anything, and I thought: Maybe there is a business here.”
It took Teti another three or so years before he actually acted on the idea, though. “I sort of got into his situation where I told too many people about it, y’know, ‘I’m going to start a cheesesteak business,” he said. “It got to the point where if I didn’t follow through on it, people would just think I’m full of crap.”
So he finally followed through, starting as a pop-up at the Chelsea farmers market in March, 2014.“The first day we started trading, we had basically a queue around the corner for us until we sold out,” said Teti. “And I thought, maybe we hit a nerve here, there’s a lot of latent demand.”
A few months later, Teti quit his corporate day job at an international tech firm to sling cheesesteaks full-time, buying a food truck.
“That enabled us to test more concepts in the market, roll out more menu items, build a really good supply chain, and a really strong vendor network, really improve our business processes,” said the business school graduate.
“The truck was going really well, but the truck was not really fulfilling ambition I had for the business, which was to sort of spread Philly far and wide and share Philly culture — provide a real, sort of genuine, authentic experience of a very specific kind of regional and ethnic Americana through our brand.”
So, it was time to build a bar and rename the business. Liberty Cheesesteak became Passyunk Avenue, after the street famous for that veritable Mecca and Medina of Cheez Whiz and fried onions, Pat’s and Geno’s.
Going with a slightly obscure South Philly street name for the business lent the brand a bit more authenticity than the more common, descriptive appellations you usually see on steak shops outside Philly — usually somebody’s name followed by “Philly cheesesteaks”, occasionally some idiot’s name followed by “Philly steak-and-cheese.”
The name Passyunk Avenue “adds a little bit of mystique for those for those who haven’t been here,” said David Reibstein, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. And Passyunk is one of Philly’s best streets for eats, offering a strong, positive connotation for those more familiar with the city.
In a land without Whiz
As clever as it may be, Teti knew the bar’s brand would be worthless without a quality product behind it.
“Philadelphians are all about the bread,” said Teti. “When a Philadelphian comes in, they’re very skeptical about what we’re doing, and they start quizzing me on the bread.”
“Bread is critical with these things, and they’ve sourced a decent supplier it seems,” said Chris Thomas, Manuel’s longtime boyfriend who lived in Philly for nearly two decades before also moving to London.
The kind of soft, long rolls from bakeries like Amaroso’s, Liscio’s and Sarcone’s just aren’t done over in England. It took Teti more than a year to find the right baker, someone to consistently bake the bespoke bread. But that wasn’t all. Besides onions, none of the ingredients came easy.
“All of the components of the cheesesteak were a huge challenge,” said Teti. “The bread was a huge challenge. Getting the meat butchered in a way that we needed was a huge challenge. The cheese sauce, because you can’t really get Whiz over here, was a huge challenge.”
Teti ended up making his own recipe for Cheez Whiz —you can say that his steaks use a faux faux-cheese. For a while, he was butchering his own steak in a warehouse in southeast London, before the volume grew too great. “Like, literally hundreds of kilos of meat a week.”
Now he has a supplier in the Netherlands — international supply chains remain the norm in London, even as Britain readies itself for impending Brexit — who sends him thinly-sliced ribeye. It’s a bit too thin for Thomas, who prefers a slightly thicker cut like those at Jim’s, but Manuel thinks the cheesesteaks at Passyunk Avenue are better than those on Passyunk Avenue.
In addition to cheesesteaks, Passyunk Avenue offers a full line of American bar food for the 170,000 ex-pats living in England — many of which in London — who might be longing for a calorie-laden taste of home, including hoagies, buffalo wings and nachos. Having a mostly regional menu with some classic American favorites is a smart move in building a client base of homesick yanks, said Reibstein.
“If you’re tired of eating the pot pies and fish and chips, you might say, ‘gee I miss some of the U.S. food, and, well, there’s some Philly food I can get and Philly’s got some good food.’”
Teti is now working on a recipe for another Philly staple you can’t find over the pond: soft pretzels. Unlike steak shops in the U.S., Teti can’t simply order Philly-made goods to lend his bar that Broad Street imprimatur. Most of barely ship outside of the tri-state region, let alone across the Atlantic. Contrast that to companies like Taylor’s Gourmet, a DC-based hoagie chain that names all of its sandwiches after Philly streets. When the shop first opened, the owners bragged about driving to Philly every morning to get rolls from Sarcone’s. That lent the brand instant hoagie credibility.
Teti offers American beers like Bud, Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada on tap, plus cans of PBR to accompany shots of Jim Beam, i.e., the Citywide Special.
Philadelphia’s nearly ubiquitous shot-and-a-bear deal (hence the name) is just $3.50 at Bob and Barabara’s, where it was created, and usually goes for $5 or less most other places, but in London, it’ll cost you £6, or about $8. While expensive for Philly, that’s a downright steal in pricey London, where just a pint of cheap pub lager can often go for more.
Teti’s working on convincing some Philly-area breweries to send him some suds to sell, but that remains a work in progress. “It’s been hard because none of the Philly brewers export,” said Teti. “So, you’re basically asking them to do you a favor, and let you siphon off a container of your beer, and let you take it overseas when they can’t even cater to the demand they have for their beers domestically.”
There are also hopes to convince Tastykake to send a few of their krimpets over to the land of tea and crumpets. Getting some genuine regional products would help bolster Passyunk Avenue’s reputation as a bonafide Philly steak shop and bar, so Teti’s not giving up, even as he recognizes the challenges it presents.
“Any business that’s worth their hat, they have a strategy, and they’re fairly loyal to their strategy,” said Teti. And a guy like means comes along, and says ‘divert from your strategy — which has nothing to do with international markets — and give me some stuff.’”
“I’m not sure that makes sense,” admits Teti.
Of course, that makes Teti a scrappy underdog full of hometown pride that’s trying to defy the odds. In other words, that makes him about as Philly as you can get.