We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.
When Mike Campo was growing up, he spent his free time helping his parents run their Southwest Philly market.
Opened in 1947, Ambrose and Rose Campo's shop was a combination grocery/deli/butcher. Because it was right across from Our Lady of Loreto school, at the corner of 62nd Street and Grays Avenue, it also did brisk business in penny candy. One of the students who frequented the sweets counter was a girl named Denise, and Mike got to know her pretty well. They went on a few dates and soon became an item.
After they finished school, the young couple came up with a plan: Ambrose Campo had suffered a stroke, and was no longer capable of fully running his store. What if Mike and Denise were to take it over? The older man agreed, and in 1975, the next generation assumed ownership of Campo's Deli.
For the next 25 years, the deli business was good to Mike and Denise, and their shop continued to flourish. As the millennium neared, however, their Southwest Philly neighborhood began to rapidly change, and the Campos went searching for a new location. They found it in Old City, at 214 Market St. In February 2000, Campo's opened in its new home, where its hoagies and cheesesteaks continue to feed both tourists and locals to this day.
Denise has since retired, and her kids Michael and Mia, now in their early 30s, have stepped in to help their father run the shop. The four of them gathered in the family's waterfront apartment, and, while sun glinted off the river beside the patio, recounted stories from their 40 years in business.
When you took over the store in 1975, did you make any changes?
We took away the meats. My father was a butcher, and when I was little he had all these live lambs and ducks down in the basement, and we would play with them ... until the day came that he would slaughter them. So we decided not to do the butchering. We just ran the shop as a grocery store/deli/sandwich place. We opened up at 8 o'clock in the morning and were there 'til 11 or midnight, seven days a week. We did that for so long; it was just second nature. We actually weren't married when we first went into business together, though.
When did you get married?
It was around a year later. Mike wanted to go on vacation, and I said, "Wait, my mom will kill me!" He said, "What, do you have to be married?" I said yes, so he pulls out the calendar and says, "All right, let's see, when should we get married..." What a proposal. But we figured, if we can make it together in business, we can make it in marriage.
Why did you move the shop to Old City?
Southwest Philly was changing, fast. So in the late '90s, I began looking for a new spot. I looked everywhere from Cape May to Kennett Square to Delaware, and then one day I was walking down Market Street and saw this space. Old City wasn't like it is today — it was mostly nightclubs and boarded-up places — but things were just starting to open. We thought it would be an interesting location. We opened here on Valentine's Day of 2000.
You didn't bring the whole "corner store" concept here, though.
No. We limited it. No deli case or lunchmeat by the pound. But we still made all the same hoagies and salads and sandwiches.
Campo's serves more than just cheesesteaks?
Oh, yes. Some people think of it as a cheesesteak place — the tourists do, certainly — but some people only get our Reubens. (Stephen Starr always gets them, unless he gets the Sicilian tuna.) Some people just get the chicken. We have customers who only get our Italian tuna antipasto salad, they wouldn't even think of getting a sandwich.
When did you open in the sports stadiums?
We went into the Wells Fargo Center first, around 2003 (it was the Wachovia Center at the time). One day [arena executive] Rich Rodowicz just walked in and asked us if we wanted to do it. We didn't know him; someone must have recommended us. They needed someone to do hoagies. We couldn't do cheesesteaks at first — someone else had it — but a year or two later it opened up. Now we have three hoagie/roast pork stands and one cheesesteak stand there.
You're also in Citizens Bank Park?
When we heard Rick's Steaks was leaving, we sent over some samples. There were a few companies in the running, but we got picked. We opened there around 2009. We now also have a stand in the Liacouras Center at Temple. All the stands are managed by Aramark.
What's your role, then?
We overlook. We tell them exactly what ingredients to buy and what recipes and procedures to follow. And we visit them all often, to check on the product.
What are the ingredients? What makes your cheesesteaks great?
It's very simple. Just good meat, good bread, good cheese and a little love from the person making it. That's all it is. I just had one for lunch. A cheesesteak with fried onions and jalapeno cheese. Good stuff. I offered some to Denise, and now I wish I had those three or four bites back.
You're really not sick of them?
People ask us that all the time, but no. There are so many different ways to have them. Even without cheese, just steak and onions is great. Mia likes our vegan cheesesteaks.
When did you add a vegan steak to your menu?
A couple years ago. We did it because Citizens Bank Park kept getting named best stadium for vegan food in the country, so people always ask for it. We thought it was silly not to have, so we added it, and it's now on the menu everywhere.
We also have gluten-free rolls, or you can get a cheesesteak with no roll at all, on a bed of lettuce. We were actually on the front page of the Inquirer for that. We'd been offering it for years, but this was right at the height of the Atkins Diet craze, and they did a big feature for Super Bowl Sunday.
You also ship cheesesteaks?
Yup, cheesesteaks and Italian hoagies. We've been shipping for 25 years, and we send out orders every single day. Parents like to send "Best of Philly" packages to kids who go away to school: a steak, a hoagie, Herr's chips, Peanut Chews and Tastykakes. Then there's the shipping we do when a Philly sports team loses, like when the Mayor makes a bet. We had to send 200 cheesesteaks to Chicago when the Flyers lost. When the Phillies lost to the Yankees, same thing.
So Mayor Nutter likes your cheesesteaks?
Don't know, someone in his office must like them. We were asked to send some to the Pope, but you're not allowed to ship food out of the country. Maybe we'll get him in September.
Who was the most famous person to eat in your shop?
Danny DeVito and the Always Sunny crew were in last year. A lot of sports folks. Scotty Harbaugh used to come in with his family. Eagles players. Adrian Peterson came in one time, and I didn't know who he was. He walked toward the bathroom, and I tried to stop him. I said, "Yo, where are you going? You gotta be a customer." Everyone else working here was like "Whoa, do you know who that is? He's the best guy in football!" So I told him I'd let him go, but that he had to return and get a cheesesteak sometime. He came back an hour or two later and ate one.
Has business gone up and down over the years?
It's gone up every year we've been in Old City, except one, 2008. We've been very fortunate. Dealing with customers can be trying sometimes, but we try to be as sweet as pie.
Customers aren't always as sweet as pie, though.
No. Especially tourists with hungry, screaming kids. But you kill them with kindness, the best you can, and those you can't, you just let them go. Some people come in with a chip on their shoulder and you try to be overly kind, just to see if you can break them.
Do you read Yelp reviews?
I do, but I never respond. Well, I only responded one time. A woman wrote something about our Wells Fargo stand — that she had cheesesteaks and fries and both were cold. Well. We don't sell fries at our stand. We're not allowed, because Chickie's & Pete's sells them. I replied to say that, but she wrote back to tell me I was mistaken. With that, I let it go. What could I do.
Right, what could you do.
We had a couple come in once — this was years ago — a guy and a girl. They both got the same sandwich, and the guy liked his, but the girl came up and said, "I can't eat this." I asked what was wrong and she said, "I don't like it." She had already eaten half, so I asked her when she decided she didn't like it. She says, "Well, it's not what I'm used to. I'm from Cherry Hill." Oh, well then! So I told her I'd split it with her, give her half the money back. She said, "Uh-uh. I want a full refund. I'm studying to be a lawyer, and I know it's my right." She actually called the cops. When the cop got here, he asked me if we had a sign anywhere that said there was a money back guarantee. I said no, so he told her, "Look, they don't have to give you your money back. If you want to file a report with the DA, go for it."
We have lots of these stories. We could write a book.
214 Market St., 215-923-1000
Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily