Having rounded the 50 mark last year, Claymont Steak continues to hold its own against Philly’s biggest steak-holders
They are from Sussex County, Philly, and New Castle. They are plumbers, bankers, politicians, even tourists. No matter where they’re from or what they do, most people come to Claymont Steak Shop for one thing: a sturdy-but-giving roll overflowing with tendrils of meat and melted cheese.
Since 1966, when Claymont Steak Shop first opened, the restaurant has developed a cult-like following. “Claymont has better cheesesteaks than anywhere in Philly,” maintains Kathleen Case, formerly of Wilmington. “We miss them now that we’re in Texas; you can’t get anything like it here.”
Bonne Burslem agrees. She grew up in the Wilmington area and now lives in Lewes. “I love and miss their Italian subs and cheesesteaks,” she says.
Like Winterthur Museum and Longwood Gardens, Claymont Steak is a go-to spot for those with houseguests. “I take all of my out-of-town guests there for a ‘Philly’ cheesesteak,” says Jay Sterin, who lives in Garnet Valley, Pa. “I love seeing the mound of meat ready to be grilled.”
What’s the secret to Claymont Steak Shop’s success? Some credit the aforementioned meat. Others say it’s the roll. But the real secret behind the shop’s recent growth and continually fresh branding is owner Demi Babanika Kollias.
A Community Anchor
Claymont Steak Shop wasn’t the first to put steak on a roll. That honor reportedly goes to Pat Olivieri, a Philadelphia hot dog vendor who in 1930 slapped a rib-eye on the grill for an employee. It looked so appealing that a customer asked for a steak on a roll instead of a hot dog, and voila!, Pat’s King of Steaks was born. In 1966, Joe Vento opened Geno’s across from Pat’s. Geno’s claim to fame is the addition of cheese. Both stands now duke it out for bragging rights.
Meanwhile, down the road, cousins Bob Hionis and Sam Demetratos opened Claymont Steak Shop on Philadelphia Pike in 1966. The Greek immigrants vividly remember the hunger that was widespread in Greece after World War II. Their determination to feed people well is one reason why Claymont Steak’s sandwiches are packed full of meat. (Indeed, it’s a challenge to keep it from tumbling from the roll. Some say you could make two sandwiches with the filling.)
The shop originally had a counter and a few stools. It was a neighborhood hangout, where customers gossiped over their sandwiches. When the adjacent drugstore and cleaners closed, Claymont Steak expanded. So did the shop’s reputation. It began winning magazine and newspaper readers’ choice awards, beating out restaurants with multiple locations. Carolyn Wyman, who wrote The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book, pronounced it her personal favorite.
After more than three decades, the partners contemplated retirement. Enter Demi Kollias.
A Modern Mindset
Like the original owners, Kollias grew up in Greece. She came to the United States at age 18 to go to college. At first, she lived with her aunt in Minnesota. That did not last long. “It was extremely cold,” she remembers. One of her friends was attending Widener University’s law school. When Kollias visited her, she liked what she saw and applied. After earning an undergraduate degree at Widener, she went to Drexel University for a master’s in business administration.
After graduation, Kollias hit the ground running with three 7-Eleven franchises in Pennsylvania. For more than 10 years, she traveled to locations that were 24-7 operations. It was grueling. When she learned that Claymont Steak Shop was available, she seized the opportunity. Bob Hionis, however, was skeptical. He let her manage the store as a trial run for six months, fully anticipating that she’d give up. He underestimated her. In 2005, Kollias and her husband, Basil, purchased the restaurant. (She runs the business.)
Kollias put her education and experience to good use at Claymont Steak, where she modernized the systems and kept an eye out for opportunities. The Newark location opened in 2010, and the Concord Pike site followed in 2015.
The 3,800-square-foot Newark restaurant, the largest of the three, serves wine and beer, which Kollias thought would be a good fit for the college town. “It did work,” she says. Because Concord Pike is the smallest and has a more quick-casual focus, she opted not to offer alcohol there.
The north Wilmington shops aren’t far from each other, but she isn’t worried about the Brandywine Hundred shop cannibalizing the Claymont restaurant’s business. Because it is the original site, Claymont still draws people from across the region. Sterin, for instance, calls himself “Old School” and only goes to the original.
Only the Best
No matter the location, the ingredients and the preparation are the same. Claymont Steak has a wholesale division to buy the meat, and everything is sliced on the premises, including deli meats. Rib-eye steaks are sliced so thin that they naturally break up on the grill; the meat is never chopped in advance. Chicken cheesesteaks are made with white meat. Nothing is marinated, Kollias says. She wants the natural flavor and the quality to shine. The rolls, made by Serpe & Sons Bakery in Elsmere, are split on the top rather than on the sides to better support the mounds of meat.
From there, the perfect cheesesteak is a matter of preference, starting with the choice of cheese. American cheese is the most popular, followed by provolone, Kollias says. Customers can also have Swiss or pepper Jack.
In Philly, those in the know order “Whiz wit,” which is slang for a steak sandwich with Cheez Whiz. (Order Swiss or provolone, and you might be laughed right out of the City of Brotherly Love.)
Occasionally, someone will “ruin a cheesesteak” by asking for the processed cheese sauce at Claymont Steak, says Kollias, who tells them so to their face. After getting that off her chest, she makes it the way they want it. The shop, however, only uses a product from New York rather than the Kraft brand.
Claymont Steak has myriad toppings. Former Vice President Joe Biden, for instance, ordered a cheese steak with provolone, fried onions, and sweet peppers.
Despite the name, Claymont Steak isn’t limited to the main attraction. Pizza has become very popular. “On a busy day, we sell 150 pizzas, which is a significant number even for a pizza place,” says Kollias. The kitchen makes the dough every day.
It’s a challenge running one store, let alone three, Kollias acknowledges. She credits her employees, many of whom have been working for the company since before she purchased it, for the smooth operation. Good workers, she says, help to maintain quality and consistency.
“I consider them my family,” she says. “We’re very close. They can call me anytime they want to, and I will be there for them.”
Her employees are a family in more ways than one. Her two daughters were 13 when they started working the counter. On a recent rainy day, Claymont Steak was short on delivery drivers. So one of her daughters, who was home from college, got behind the wheel. “They’re not afraid to work—are you kidding me? I’m their mother,” she says.
Photographs of the staff are prominently displayed on the revamped website, which allows customers to order online. They can also view the menu, which includes gluten-free options and vegetarian dishes, as well as wraps and quesadillas. The site also describes the company’s catering services, which includes breakfast dishes, cheese steak and deli trays, and lunch boxes.
Kollias isn’t ruling out further expansion, which could come in the form of a food truck. She’s consistently on the lookout for new customers. At the same time, she’s determined to build on the legacy. She often greets customers who’ve been coming since 1966. “We appreciate all our customers’ loyalty over the last 50 years,” she says.
Demi Kollias says she feels like she’s never slept in her life. In the last 20 years, she has owned three 7-Elevens that posted double-digit sales increases every year, three Claymont Steak Shops and a meat-processing company. And, the 7-Elevens were deep into Pennsylvania.
“I pretty much got zero sleep because it’s not only the physical work that you do, it’s the mental work. When you’re the person who is in charge, you’re always trying to predict the next step, especially when you have to deal with a 24-hour operation, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” she said. “The first day that I didn’t have to be on the Blue Route at 5 o’clock in the morning, it felt like I was going through space or something. I thought, ‘What was I doing all these years?’”
Nowadays, Kollias has cut back to operating three steak shops, including a new one on Concord Pike, and the meat-processing company. She and her attorney-husband also are raising two daughters, a Tufts freshman and a Tower Hill senior.
Kollias relied on help from her mother, who helped rear her daughters, and her in-laws, who lent her the money to get started — at slightly more than the bank interest rate at the time.
“For me, it was 100 times easier with my mother, who is my angel, living with us all these years, helping me. I felt so comfortable that it was my mother. I knew she would love them and take care of them — and teach them Greek,” Kollias said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my Mom. I’m not a super-woman.”
“My father-in-law was my bank,” she said. “Some people said, ‘Oh, she has a rich family. They gave her everything.’ No, that’s not true. My family was my own personal bank — but we definitely paid them back.”
Being a young woman with an M.B.A. meant some differences in management style from the uncle who sold her the first Claymont Steak Shop in 2005. He was old school; she had learned computer inventory at 7-Eleven and planned to use sophisticated programs to track everything. “He almost didn’t sell me the restaurant,” she said.
Kollias and her husband are co-owners, but she runs the operation. She said her entrepreneurial style is to take less risk than she is able to take. “I like more stable and small, secure steps rather than jumping the staircase three steps at a time,” she said. “Where I am right now, we have over 100 employees, so I have to think about them and their families too.”
With a to-do list at the ready on her nightstand, Kollias says she always has a project for the future. Will she be part of the 5.2 percent growth the National Restaurant Association predicts for Delaware in 2016? Not likely. It’s her daughter’s senior year, she said.
By Suzanne Loudermilk
Did you know the fans of Claymont Steak Shop are known as Claymonsters? They’re that fanatical about the place. And now they have a third location to visit. The popular eatery—known for its signature rib-eye sandwich with melted American and provolone cheeses—opened a new spot last week at 2720 Concord Pike in Wilmington.
It offers all the delicious menu items available at the original location in Claymont and its second store in Newark, from subs to pizzas. Owner Demi Kollias, who took over the business in 2005, told the magazine last year, “I was able not only to improve it, but take it to another level in terms of product quality, service and name recognition.” Check out her profile in our 2014 “Women in Business” story. http://www.delawaretoday.com/Delaware-Today/December-2014/Women-in-Business/.
TSD was a lucky invitee at a friends and family sneak preview of the legendary Claymont Steak Shop’s beautiful new Concord Pike location. Sunday’s opening celebration showcased the restaurant’s contemporary interior and nifty green signage as well as several of their signature dishes, such as cheese steaks, pizza, baklava and other delicacies. “We like to create restaurants that are very much a part of their community,” said owner Demi Kollias. “So while there is a sports theme at our Newark location, the Concord Pike area is different. People are busy and pressed for time any time they travel the Pike. So we will offer exceptionally fast service in an urban-style restaurant environment that our guests will enjoy.”
Philadelphia Citypaper Cover Story
Let our expert expand your grease-stained horizons.
In the days following Joe Biden’s selection as Obama’s running mate, much was made of the widowed senator’s grueling daily train trips from Washington to Delaware, ostensibly to be with his kids. Having been to Biden’s favorite steak shop, I suspect a less noble motivation.