“I had a very long relationship with Cheez Whiz. We met all the time, sometimes late at night. On the weekends. It was a long relationship. But we divorced about a year-and-a-half ago.”
Geno Vento may not indulge in the caloric nightmare that is Cheez Whiz anymore, but that’s not to say he’s not exposed to it: As the owner of iconic Geno’s Cheesesteaks in South Philly, Vento spends several days a week surrounded by the tempting ingredients of one of the city’s staple foods — which makes his recent near-100-pound weight loss all the more impressive.
Vento, 42, took over ownership of Geno’s after the 2011 death of his father, Joey, who founded the shop in 1966. While Vento said the transition has had its challenges, he’s been able to rely on his 25 years in the family business — as well as the foundation laid by his father — for guidance.
Vento joined the Geno’s team at age 17, working the window, operating the register and grilling food.
“I didn’t really have a set job at that time,” he said. “I just sort of picked what I wanted to do each day, but most of the time I was on the register.”
Apart from a few other side jobs over the years, Vento spent more than two decades in the busy, bustling stand, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Now, Vento is at the shop three or four days a week, overseeing the well-oiled operation that is Geno’s.
It was a job he had, in a sense, been destined for: Vento’s father named him after the shop.
As owner, Vento now wears a number of hats. He is tasked with responding to requests for community donations and participation in fundraising events, as well as handling celebrity visits to the shop. Geno’s has been graced by the likes of Mariah Carey, Sylvester Stallone, Britney Spears and countless other big-name Philly visitors, many of whom Vento hosts at the “celebrity table” inside the shop, adorned with pictures of Vento, his father and other Geno’s employees with celebs over the years. Among the most memorable guests, Vento said, were Michael Buble and Neil Patrick Harris.
Less glamorous is the internal work; Vento processes payroll, ensures equipment functionality and supervises employee productivity.
The latter has never been an issue, he said.
“The workers are like family. I basically grew up there, and there’s some people who’ve been there 30, 40 years and who saw me grow up,” he said. “People come in and do their jobs. People have been there so long so it’s not like I have to keep going over how we do things. If we get a new process for cleaning a fryer or something, I’ll review it with everyone. But everybody has their own job and that’s what they focus on.”
Even though Geno’s had a ubiquitous presence throughout his life, transitioning from worker to owner has had a learning curve, Vento said.
His dad died suddenly of a heart attack in August 2011, and his mom lost her battle with cancer in March 2013, conditions that didn’t make for the ideal takeover of a business with such a unique reputation as Geno’s.
“I lost my mom and dad within two years, and had this empire kind of dumped on me to run. So taking over the business was scary, but it was enlightening too,” he said. “Dad had his own way of doing things and when I was growing up, he would always say, ‘I’ll show you later’ or ‘I’ll tell you how to do this tomorrow.’ So I know I can’t run it exactly like Dad did. But I always say, ‘What would Dad do?’ or ‘What would Dad say?’”
While Vento shares his father’s devotion to the store, he said he has committed, as owner, to having some nonworking hours in his week.
“My dad worshipped that store. No matter where we were, at home, in the car — he would constantly talk Geno’s, Geno’s, Geno’s. He would eat, sleep and drink Geno’s. When I’m at work, I’m at work, and when I’m out of there, I want to enjoy life.”
Vento’s father was synonymous with the shop, a figure who embodied the gritty, working-class feel of South Philly — and who raised some eyebrows and ire with his controversial “When ordering, speak English” sign several years ago.
But, Vento said, his dad was not as tough as his reputation.
“He was very much a family man. He did everything he could for me and my mother. He never had us want for anything,” Vento said. “But that came with a compromise. Instead of being at all of the social events or family outings or sports games, he had to work because he didn’t want us to want for anything. But his bark was bigger than his bite. Believe it or not, he was a big teddy bear.”
Both of his parents handled his coming-out at age 19 relatively well, Vento said.
“I didn’t exactly come out at Thanksgiving dinner, like, ‘Mom, pass the stuffing. I’m gay.’ But a lot of people said they kind of knew already and nobody really cared. My parents were a little shocked at first; they were just worried about me being happy and enjoying my life. And I think there was an element of worrying about Geno’s Steaks and what people would think. But they saw I was still the same person, still acted the same way as my dorky self always did, and it eventually was no big deal.”
While his coming-out didn’t present a significant hurdle, another lifelong challenge did: his weight.
Having grown up in an Italian household, Vento joked that his house was always stocked with cakes and cookies.
“God forbid family came over and we didn’t have something for them to eat.”
He developed poor eating habits from a young age.
“I guess I was an emotional eater. I would eat when I was happy or sad. But I’d also eat when it was sunny or when it was snowing out. I didn’t discriminate.”
Entering the family business as a teenager certainly didn’t help.
While at work, he would often grab a handful of fries while running from window to window, or roll up a bit of steak with cheese as a snack and then stop for pizza or Chinese food for dinner after his shift ended.
At his heaviest, he topped out at over 360 pounds.
But, Vento said, the passing of both of his parents made him reexamine his life.
“When I lost my dad it was an eye-opener. I was so out of breath, tired all the time. And I lost my mom too, and at that point, I was like, I gotta do something for myself. I felt like I had always been doing things for other people, for family and friends, and I needed to do something for myself.”
Vento underwent lap-band surgery and overhauled his eating and exercise habits.
To date, he’s lost 92 pounds, and is planning to shed another 25.
Vento now works with a personal trainer at Optimal Sports and swims at the pool at his Penn’s Landing complex; before his recent knee replacement, he was swimming 100 laps, three times a week. He’s also incorporated sensible foods — oatmeal, fruits, granola, yogurt — into his diet, bringing healthy snacks to work with him.
But he still allows himself to periodically indulge, even in his business’ staple product.
“I’ll still let myself have a cheesesteak, even though I can only have a half of one now. But I’m human and not perfect: There are days where I’m going to have cookies or ice cream or pizza. And then the next day, I just have to work out harder. It’s like a chess game; you have to plan your moves,” he said. “And what works for me may not work for someone else. It’s a recipe that you have to find. But every day is not going to be perfect; you still have to enjoy your life.”
Apart from his exercise regime, Vento also devotes nonworking time as a co-producer of “The Calamari Sisters” — a popular comedy show starring a pair of female impersonators who are putting a new spin on Italian cooking.
Vento hopes to also put his own spin on his namesake — to an extent. He recently installed a new 8-foot cheesesteak sign on top of the building. He said he may change other decor, or alter the colors of some of Geno’s eye-catching neon signs.
But, largely, he plans to leave the iconic shop as is.
“I’m going to run it the way it is. I may make little tweaks here and there and change some things in time. But why fix what’s not broken?”
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