NEW HAVEN — Philadelphia native Shem Adams has a big dream — to someday spread his love of Philadelphia cheesesteaks and other Philly goodies from coast to coast.
But right now he has his sights set on New Haven, and that’s about to happen after seven years of planning.
Adams, who managed to obtain the web address “eatcheesesteak.com,” plans a grand opening, “God willing,” for right around May 1. But he’s likely to quietly open as soon as he can get his final approvals from the city fire marshal and health department, he said.
A third store will follow later in May up in Bennington, Vt.
Why New Haven for his first step beyond Norwich?
“I think this is the heartbeat of Connecticut,” Adams said outside his new place, where he held a special preview for invited guests Thursday evening. “This is the closest I’ve come to something that feels like Philly.”
Adams joked that “we give you Philly — without the disrespect!”
Philly’s — A Taste of Philadelphia will offer a variety of real-deal Philly eats, including cheesesteaks made from high-quality ribeye cuts (also offering chicken steaks), with “wiz,” American or provolone cheese, offered with or without onions, sweet or hot peppers or mushrooms, among other accoutrements.
Before opening the Norwich store, Adams went down to Philadelphia and spent some time with Abner Silver, the late owner of Jim’s South Street Philadelphia Steaks & Hoagies, one of Philly’s most iconic joints, who graciously “walked me through it” and “showed me everything” Adams needed to do things right, he said.
The New Haven Philly’s also will offer treats ranging from wings and a variety of signature topped fries, including Buffalo fries and honey teriyaki fries, nachos, some breakfast sandwiches and — surprise! — Connecticut-style hot lobster rolls.
As it turns out, two members of the Philly’s investment team, which Adams has been working with for the past seven years, are former owners of Lenny & Joe’s Fish Tale in Madison and Westbrook, which serves some of Connecticut’s most famous lobster rolls. It was their suggestion to add them to the menu, he said.
Lobster rolls may not be “pure Philadelphia,” but they are popular items along the Connecticut shoreline.
Philly’s in New Haven, with its slick red and blue signage, looks larger and more established than the little shop in Norwich. That’sno mistake, Adams said.
Adams has aimed since he opened to look like something that might someday be franchised — which has been his ultimate goal. “It’s designed to look like I’ve already got 13 of these,” he said.
“I didn’t want to start off looking like a mom-and-pop (joint)”, Adams said. “I wanted everyone to come in and say, ‘Who owns this?’ I wanted all the branding and artwork to look expensive.”
He got a big push almost by accident 11 years ago when a customer showed up late at night, right as Philly’s in Norwich was about to close. Adams invited the man in and made him a sandwich.
The man — Waylon Benbow of Durham, who used to be a leasing director for Subway and had outfitted 4,000 locations for one of the world’s largest fast-food operations — liked what he ate, and what he saw. He’s now helping to guide Philly’s growth.
“He’s the brain of this,” Adams said. “I’m the heart.”
Philly’s also got a big push from another Connecticut heavy-lifter, Daym Drops, the onetime freelance food reviewer who now has made it big-time on the Food Network. His glowing review of Philly’s — which he later followed-up with a second glowing review — put it on maps well beyond Connecticut.
Daym Drops is expected to make an appearance at the New Haven Philly’s later in May, Adams said.
Philly’s landlord, Yale University, seems pretty happy to add the eatery to the downtown mix, if the reaction of Lauren Zucker, associate vice president for New Haven affairs and university properties, is any indication.
“We are delighted to celebrate the continued growth of downtown New Haven by bringing Philly’s, a black-owned small business known for their delicious, affordable and high quality cheesesteaks, to New Haven,” Zucker said. “Yale University’s community investment program supports independently-owned businesses, creating jobs for New Haven residents and expanding the city’s tax base.”
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