A Mouthwatering Mecca

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 Claymont Steak Shop cheesesteak. Photo Anthony Santoro
A Claymont Steak Shop cheesesteak. Photo Anthony Santoro

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.

Demi Kollias has run the business since 2005. Photo Anthony Santoro
Demi Kollias has run the business since 2005. Photo Anthony Santoro

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.

Moving Forward

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.

Kollias says she considers her employees, like Fernando Salas and Lorena Aguilar Hernandez, “like family. They can call me anytime.” Photo Anthony Santoro
Kollias says she considers her employees, like Fernando Salas and Lorena Aguilar Hernandez, “like family. They can call me anytime.” Photo Anthony Santoro

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.