Last year, after Gloria Walker was told that she had late-stage bladder cancer, her son Dustin Vitale asked her: “If there’s one thing in the world you can do, what would it be?’”
“She said, ‘I’d like to see the pyramids,’ ” he said. “Ever since she was a little girl, she’s wanted to see them.”
Between raising a family and her work as a hospital dietitian — coupled with a general aversion to flying — she never visited Egypt.
Walker, 56, did not want to travel alone or just go with her husband, Tone. She wanted to go with her whole family. It was a dream, a distant dream, complicated now not only by time and illness, but by expense.
How to fund the trip?
Last Christmas, Vitale and his wife, Hailey, made cheesesteaks for the family. Making and eating cheesesteaks, you see, is Dustin’s jawn. “I eat a cheesesteak at least two or three times a week,” said Vitale, 26, a Cairn University graduate who teaches history at First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School in the city’s Frankford section. On a dare to eat 100 steaks in 2018, he ate 100 by May and finished with 192.
That gave Vitale the lightbulb moment: raising at least $10,000 by making and selling cheesesteaks. Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov, who met the Vitales at K’Far, one of his restaurants, dropped by on March 6, bought a bunch, and posted his rave review on Instagram.
The post exploded with interest.
Vitale said his campaign started on his Instagram story, which friends, family, and his students helped to spread. The first day was in February.
“We didn’t know how long the hype was going to last, so we decided to just keep telling everyone and see how many we get,” Vitale said. “We ended up doing 94 in one day and we were like just blown away.” But 94 cheesesteaks in one day simply was too much for his rowhouse — where his gas grill with a griddle surface is set out on the deck — so the Vitales have scaled it back to 100 for three-day weekends. People contact them through @dvitale23 on Instagram or by email at email@example.com.
On sale days, the Vitales wake at 4 a.m. to bake their own 9-inch rolls — though sometimes supplement with commercial ones — and shop for ingredients at an Aldi market. A typical haul includes 60 pounds of beef and 30 pounds of chicken. Each cheesesteak, chicken cheesesteak, and buffalo chicken cheesesteak has 14 to 16 ounces of meat and is sold with fries for $15.
While Dustin and Hailey Vitale work the griddle, stepfather Tone does prep work. (Tone and Gloria recently moved into an apartment in the Vitales’ basement. Gloria stays masked and does not join the family upstairs.) Dustin’s father, Dennis Vitale Jr., stepmother Lana Vitale, sister Jessica Holmes, brother Dennis Vitale III, and friends Nate and Evelyn DeStana also help.
“I thought it was an amazing idea,” said Walker, who does not have any grand travel plans other than “just being on the ground there.” Dustin’s trip there in 2018 was “life-changing,” she said.
She said she felt blessed for her son’s project and for the attention.
The steaks have become a hot commodity, Dustin Vitale said: “It’s harder to get than a reservation at Zahav,” Solomonov’s award-winning restaurant.
“So many people say, ‘Are you going to jump into this and open up a shop?’ " Dustin Vitale said. “And I could never. I love doing this on the side. My heart and passion is teaching and for the students.”