The Cheese Steak Shop Leans into Identity and Gives Back During Pandemic

Above: The Cheese Steak Shop keeps its employees safe as they continue to make great sandwiches for Bay Area locals; image from The Cheese Steak Shop’s Facebook page.

When Tony Bendana took over The Cheese Steak Shop in 2018, he knew it needed an update. 

With a little bit of rebranding, a simplified menu, and a remodel, Bendana and his partner reshaped the restaurant into a multi-million dollar brand offering authentic philly cheesesteaks at dozens of locations across California. 

“We’re proud of it,” Bendana said. “We’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

What’s different about The Cheese Steak Shop is its authenticity – even though they’re on the West Coast. All the sandwiches are served on traditional Amoroso rolls and peppers are sourced from New Jersey. 

Bendana also tries to make building your own philly cheese steak as easy and seamless as possible.  All sandwiches come in three sizes, with a choice of chicken or steak, topped with cheese, grilled onions and hot or sweet peppers. Of course, customers can add on sides like housemade potato chips or onion rings, try a pizza steak or motown philly—a twist on the traditional sandwich—or sample a vegetarian option. 

“You’re getting the real deal,” Bendana said. “We’re doing the real, real Philly cheesesteak and we’re really sticking to the recipes.”

The aforementioned real deal.

A History of Remodeling

Bendana has always been a revamper. Across California, Bendana and his partner have rebranded and improved businesses like Erik’s DeliCafé and Mr. Pickles Sandwich Shop. When he saw the opportunity available with The Cheese Steak Shop, he jumped on it.

“I’m known as taking local quick service restaurants—well-known in the area—and can quickly make strategic decisions and focus on brand awareness, marketing, operations or recipes and help turn the business around,” Bendana said. 

Within weeks of remodeling The Cheese Steak Shop,   Bendana saw a 20 to 25 percent bump in business. He also brought in third-party delivery, offered online ordering, revamped the loyalty program, and ran marketing ads on TV and at the Giants’ ballpark. 

With all this attention to detail, it’s no wonder The Cheese Steak Shop is expected to be a $20 million company by the end of the year. 

Branding, one of Bendana’s areas of expertise, was another big change at the restaurant. He ordered branded wraps and bags — anything served to customers had the restaurant’s name on it. 

“Everything we could think of was branded and it really made a difference,” Bendana said.

Giving Back During the Pandemic

Although the company experienced sales drops within the first few weeks of the pandemic, more than four months in, they’re making 25 to 35 percent more than last year. Bendana attributes the success to their extensive social media marketing campaigns and low reliance on third party delivery. 

Whereas other companies rely heavily on third party delivery services that take a large commission from restaurateurs and jack up prices for customers, at The Cheese Steak Shop, only about 40 percent is through third party delivery and 60 percent stems from people coming into the restaurant. Even before COVID-19, only about 15 to 20 percent of sales came from the platforms. 

To boost in-store customers, the company also started a social media campaign which included giving customers much needed toilet paper and free t-shirts. Workers posted pictures of customers coming into the restaurant to the store’s Instagram, and Bendana spent $50,000 on 15,000 t-shirts branded with their logo and shop location that said, “I sheltered in place with the cheesesteak shop.” 

To top it all off, the restaurant is now asking customers to go as far as they can with their t-shirt, and offering a $100 gift card for customers who snap a photo with a background showing where they are.

Amid the pandemic and since the get go, Bendana has always been focused on his employees. Currently, he’s giving COVID pay to employees and bonuses as a way to thank them for doing something for the communities they serve. 

Both Bendana and his partner also haven’t taken any money from the business. It all goes back to the managers, workers and the loyal customers. 

“We can reap the benefits later,” Bendana said. “But right now, our philosophy has always been take care of the people, take care of the company, make sure everything is running the right way  and we’ll get ours later.”

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