Leaving Philadelphia winters behind was easy for Alan Costilo when he moved to South Florida in 1998, but he missed the sandwiches. So after a few years of getting the taste of authentic Philly cheesesteaks only on visits home, he decided to bring a little piece of his hometown to the Sunshine State. Fortunately, he had a son with foodservice experience as manager of several Auntie Anne’s pretzel stores and a friend who could show him how to do it the “Philly way.”
Joe Vento, founder of Geno’s Steaks in South Philadelphia, taught Costilo and his son, Adam, step by step how to make authentic Philly steak sandwiches. Costilo says that means serving only sliced—never chopped—rib-eye steaks and soft Italian steak rolls brought in from Philly.
“It takes over your store,” Costilo says. “Your main business has to be steak sandwiches. That’s the only way to make it. The trick is the temperature of the steak and how it’s sliced.”
Everything is made to order at Big Al’s and Costilo says four minutes is the normal turnaround time for orders.
“Our goal is to be very concise in our preparation,” he says. “Everything is done up front where the customers can watch and we try to save steps in the process and be as efficient as possible to keep quality at a maximum and production costs at a minimum. We can handle a really large load with three employees, but most of the time we only need two.”
The first Big Al’s Steaks opened in Coconut Creek, Florida, in 2006, and a second location was added 20 miles north in Delray Beach in 2007. This year, Big Al’s Steaks Franchise launched and the first franchise unit will open in Boynton Beach in early 2010.
“We have several franchises in different stages,” Costilo says. “We’d like to work in concentric circles from where we are, but we’re registered in 42 states, so we’ll take it where it comes; wherever we can make sure Big Al’s Steaks will be successful for the franchisee and offer the same high-quality product we do now.”
Big Al’s uses exclusively organic, free-range, grass-fed beef in its steak sandwiches, which Costilo says is tastier and more nutritious, thanks to 20 percent fewer calories and more healthy omega 3 fatty acids and polyunsaturated fats.
“It’s good healthy meat,” Costilo says. “So far, the best tasting beef we have found comes from South America. And as we grow we are constantly in search of equal or better quality meat. We pride ourselves on quality and don’t let expense get in the way of a quality product.”
A steak sandwich at Big Al’s costs “$7 and change,” Costilo says. “It’s quick service but definitely not fast food. We live our days hearing people rave about our food.”
Those rave reviews come from both displaced Philadelphians and people who have never eaten an authentic Philly steak sandwich before.
The sandwiches are available with American or provolone cheeses or the traditional Philly touch: Cheez Whiz.
“That’s the traditional way,” Costilo says. “Cheez Whiz is remarkably good on steak sandwiches.”
Big Al’s also has four cold hoagie sandwiches on the menu—Italian, ham, turkey, and veggie—plus rib-eye sliders and a chicken Philly. The sliders are made from grinding the ends of the steak that can’t be sliced thin enough for sandwiches. Costilo says that as a purist he didn’t want to grind any meat, but he also hated wasting the ends. So he consented and now the ground beef sliders are a big hit, especially with kids.
Breakfast is offered at the Delray Beach location because its high-volume downtown district warrants it. In the future, Costilo says breakfast will be available “where it makes sense.”
The breakfast menu offers sandwiches similar to the Philly cheesesteak but with the addition of eggs. The steak, egg, and cheese sandwich, for example, is like an omelet on a Philly roll.
CEO: Alan Costilo
HQ: Delray Beach, Florida
Year started: 2005
Annual sales: Undisclosed
Total units: 2
Franchise units: 0
The beverage offerings at Big Al’s also have a Philly flavor. In addition to the traditional fountain soft drinks, Big Al’s offers Philadelphia staples: birch beer and cherry soda.
“We want people to feel like they are in Philly,” Costilo says. “We yell the orders to the grill just like they do there. It’s a real slice of Philly here in Florida, and it’s our goal to spread throughout the country.”
There is one area, though, where Costilo would like to break with tradition: seating. In South Philly, the cheesesteak places are small and have few, if any, tables. Customers eat standing at counters or take their sandwich to go. Costilo’s goal for the Big Al’s franchise units is a 1,500–2,000 square-foot restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, but that all depends on available space.
“I have no plans to build restaurants from the ground up at this point because the abundance of previous restaurant space available right now really reduces our build-out costs,” he says.