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Philadelphia Cheesesteak Shop Owner Defends 'Order in English' Policy

A small sign that asked customers to order in English at a famous cheesesteak shop was never meant to be offensive, the shop's owner testified Friday at a hearing to decide whether the policy was discriminatory.

Joe Vento, the owner of Geno's Steaks, defended his policy before the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, which filed the discrimination complaint.

"This country is a melting pot, but what makes it work is the English language," Vento told the commission. "I'm not stupid. I would never put a sign out to hurt my business."

Vento posted two small signs in October 2005 at his shop in a diverse South Philadelphia neighborhood, telling customers, "This is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING PLEASE 'SPEAK ENGLISH.'"

He said Friday that he posted the sign because of concerns over the debate on immigration reform and the increasing number of people from the area who could not order in English.

But he said he also wanted to keep the line moving at his busy store.

"The case should, without question, be dismissed," Vento attorney Shannon L. Goessling said. "There is a legitimate business purpose for this sign."

Paul M. Hummer, an attorney for the commission, testified earlier that the sign is not about political speech, but about "intimidation," and that it suggested business from certain individuals was not wanted.

No ruling is expected for at least two months, the three-member panel said.

After extensive publicity in 2006, the commission began investigating whether Vento violated a city ordinance that prohibits discrimination in employment, public accommodation and housing on the basis of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

In February, the commission found probable cause against Geno's Steaks for discrimination, alleging that the policy at the shop discourages customers of certain backgrounds from eating there.

Friday's hearing was held at the Arch Street Meeting House, given to the Philadelphia Quakers by William Penn in 1693. The building is billed as a symbol of "tolerance, equality and peace."

Vento arrived carrying a bouquet of red and white roses. He met some resistance outside the hall, with protesters carrying signs reading, "No Hate in Our Town." About 100 people were in attendance when the meeting started shortly after 1:30 p.m, but only a few dozen were left when testimony ended shortly before 8 p.m.

Vento told of starting his steak shop in 1966 with just $6 and developing it into a multimillion-dollar business.

Camille Charles, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, testified that Vento's signs harken back to the "Whites only" postings of the Jim Crow era.

"The signs give a feeling of being unwelcome and being excluded," Charles said.