Long hours and hard work helped Joey Vento build a landmark restaurant in Philadelphia from the ground up, but that work ethic may have also sent him to an early grave.
That's why Eileen Vento's blood boiled when she heard President Obama declare last week that small business owners like her husband owed others for their success.
“That is ridiculous. My husband had $6 in his pocket when he started.” Vento said to FoxNews.com about Joey Vento, who opened Geno’s Steaks in 1966 in the neighborhood of South Philly.
“He worked hard his whole life to build the place up. We made a lot of money. Unfortunately he didn’t get to enjoy it.”
- Eileen Vento, widow of cheesesteak king Joey Vento
“He worked hard his whole life to build the place up. We made a lot of money. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to enjoy it,” she added.
Vento worked at the shop right up until a heart attack killed him last August at age 71. His widow believes 45 years of toil to build a prosperous life for his family took a toll on him. She bristled at the comment Obama made during a campaign stop in Roanoke, Va., last Friday when he said business owners owed some of their success to help along the way, noting that government often provides the infrastructure needed for success.
“If you got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen,” Obama said. "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive."
The comments created a backlash among small business owners and others across the country who feel that entrepreneurship is the backbone of the American economy. Vento's sister-in-law said Joey Vento owed his success to his own hard work and the loyal customers he cultivated.
“He went there at 3 or 4 in the morning and stayed until 11 every night. He did it seven days a week,” said Diana Vergagini. “And when he wasn’t there he'd call in at every shift change asking, ‘How did we do? What’s the bread count? What’s the steak count?’”
Vento gained national notoriety in 2006 when he posted a sign at the order window that read, “This is America: When ordering please ‘speak English.’”
The president's slight of entrepreneurs also riled David Ruff, owner of Petit Jean Meats, in Morrilton, Ark. He said his father and uncle began building the business in the 1920s, when they were kids and would deliver meat on their bicycles throughout the town, located an hour north of Little Rock. They spent their lifetimes making it a success, and Ruff remembers his father Edward's pride when they built a new 70,000-square-foot facility in the 1980s.
"When you start work at 12 years old and at 73 to see what it has become...," he said. "You can't help but be proud of that."
Edward Ruff died of heart failure in 1990 at age 73, but he lived to see the company he devoted his life to become a success. And his son, who now oversees a business that employs 70 people and has annual sales of $14 million, resents any implication that Petit Jean Meats was built on anything but generations of sweat.
"There wasn't a handout," David Ruff said. "We had to borrow the money from the bank. We didn't have any guarantee.
"This is what the president doesn't understand, the risks that people take."
"People work their tails off for 20-30 years before they see a return."