Cheesesteaks in paradise.
I drove past the Dunedin, Florida, shopping center three times before I realized it was my destination. The giant anchor store looked like it had been empty for years, and all the other storefronts were closed for the weekend.
Except one, tucked in the back of the L-shaped complex: Delco’s Original Steaks & Hoagies.
At 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon, I was early for dinner. But almost every table at the casual restaurant was full.
Delco’s only has two locations. The original is a thousand miles north in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania, southwest of Philadelphia. The owner, Ed Crowley, trailed the Philadelphia Phillies to Clearwater, Florida, for spring training in 1997. Crowley and his partner, Cindi Bowers, brought Delco’s to Dunedin the following year.
Now, Delco’s serves up cheesesteaks at those baseball games, and the Dunedin shop is an altar to Philadelphia sports culture. At least 30 promotional bobblehead dolls watch over the dining room from a high ledge.
When I ask Crowley over the phone why he brought the business to central Florida, he calls me out. “You have a 215 phone number,” he says. “You know how cold the winters are up there.”
That’s when I realize I’m one of them: a Philly transplant, someone who traded their ice scraper (but maybe not their Philly cell phone number) for a more relaxed lifestyle in Florida. I used to think it was a retirement strategy, but St. Petersburg’s reported 361 days of sunshine each year convinced me to pack away my sunlamp and head south.
Although I spent the last 10 years in Washington, D.C., I grew up in the northeastern Philadelphia suburbs. Every visit home follows the same routine: Stopping by Wawa for a hoagie as soon as possible; earmarking one dinner for to-go cheesesteaks; making at least one run for a paper bag of warm soft pretzels. When I get homesick, I’m usually just hungry.
So who’s filling Delco’s before the dinner rush even starts? It’s not the snowbirds waiting out winter in Florida. It’s the transplants who left Philly behind for good. “They’re here year-round,” Crowley says. “Some of them come in a couple days a week.”
The service is friendly but no-nonsense. The food? It’s real. My cheesesteak is piled high, generous on the cheese and peppers. The roll is chewy but sturdy, obvious from the first bite that it’s from Philly’s famed Amoroso’s bakery.
I add a pack of Tastykake butterscotch krimpets and a fresh soft pretzel to my tab before wiggling out through a takeout line four deep.
Delco’s isn’t the only Philly food joint in town. Across the Bay, Philly Phlava has three Tampa-area stores.
“We get a ton of transplants,” says Benjamin Coia, one of the owners. “Not just from Philly, but throughout the northeast. They seek us out,” he says, for a taste of something familiar. “There’s enough bad pizza in Tampa,” he laughs. “There aren’t enough good cheesesteaks.”
But sometimes it takes a bit of convincing. “We do get our fair share of Philly skeptics,” he says. “They want to quiz you. They want to tell us how Philly they are.”
But Phlava has all the standards: Amoroso’s rolls, Herr’s chips, Hank’s sodas, and Pennsylvania Dutch birch beer on the fountain. “I grew up on that,” Coia says. He sells cheeseburger hoagies and pizza steaks, which you can always find in the Philly area but rarely elsewhere. And, of course, Cheez Whiz: hot, neon-orange goop with a questionable percentage of actual cheese, but a devoted following among cheesesteak lovers.
“We’ve had it since day one,” he says, almost offended I even asked. “You gotta have Whiz. It’s the biggest thing from the food shows.”
The rise of food-focused television and social media has turned out to be Coia’s best marketing tool. “We’ll get rushes at odd times,” Coia says. “And we’ll ask, ‘Where did you hear about us?’” The typical response: one of the food shows the night before had featured cheesesteaks, and area viewers started Googling.
Bigger names are catching on in the mid-Atlantic migration. Philly Pretzel Factory has franchises in Winter Haven in central Florida and Naples further south on the Gulf coast. Philly-burbs-based Rita’s Italian Ice has a smattering of stands throughout the Southeast, but 16 in Florida alone, with three west of Tampa.
And then there’s Wawa.
While the chain has been a mid-Atlantic staple 1964, the brand jumped over most of the Southeast and landed in Florida in 2012. Now, Wawa has more than 700 stores—and 100 of them are in Florida. Ten Tampa-area stores opened in 2013 alone, kicking off that year with five openings in five weeks.
Wawa broke ground in July 2016 on the first of 10 stores in Broward and Palm Beach counties, on the Atlantic side of Florida. The local commissioner Steven Abrams, originally from Philadelphia, spoke at the groundbreaking, excited to welcome a chain that makes “hoagies” instead of “subs.” This November, the state’s 100th Wawa opened in Brandon, Florida. It’s a 10-minute drive from a Philly Phlava. Across the state, 12 more Wawa locations will open by spring 2017.
If it weren’t 80 degrees here, you might forget Philadelphia is a thousand miles away.