We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.

Cosmi's Deli owner Mike Seccia has a secret: He doesn't like cheesesteaks. It's not that he doesn't appreciate the sandwich that makes up more than half of sales at the shop his great-uncle founded back in 1932. Far from it. He just isn't a cheese guy - his griddled steak gets topped with nothing but fried onions and hot peppers.

For patrons, on the other hand, anything goes. American, Whiz, provolone or even Swiss; Seccia doesn't judge. All he cares is that the customer goes home happy. It's a philosophy adopted from his father, Leon Seccia, who ran the store at Eighth and Dickinson from 1976 until seven years ago, when Mike bought him out.

Leon grew up behind the counter at Cosmi's. His father served in World War II and his mother worked three jobs, so he spent his youth in the care of his aunt Pauline and his uncle Cosmi Quattro. Quattro was a native of Italy who immigrated to New York in 1928, found his way to Philadelphia, and decided that owning a grocery was a better way to make a living than laying bricks.

When Cosmi's first opened, it was strictly a market, with four aisles stocked with pasta, sauce, and other dried goods, plus a butchery offering cut-to-order meats. Prepared food didn't come into the picture until 50 years later, when a teenaged Mike suggested to his father that they try selling sandwiches.

At first, they sold about 10 or 15 hoagies a day. That number grew slowly but steadily over the next decade, until 1999, when Inquirer columnist Rick Nichols discovered the corner delicatessen. After his raves in a Sunday paper, sandwich sales tripled overnight. Later that same year, a fire next door forced a renovation, and Mike convinced his father to drop the grocery side of the business and go all in on food.

Standing amid a well-orchestrated circus of ringing phones, sizzling grills and foil-wrapped orders headed out the door, Seccia, 47, took a short break for an interview. He answered questions about ingredients (he offers three types of roll), his menu (it gets larger every year), and his most famous customers (Questlove is a regular). He also offered a brief lesson in how to speak South Philly-ese.

What's your first memory of Cosmi's Deli?

My father bringing me here on weekends when I was a kid. I did odd jobs, like weighing out cherries in 1-pound bags, or pricing things with the pricing gun, which was like a toy to me. It was fun; I loved coming to work. I probably thought about doing something else once or twice when I was college, but I pretty much knew that this is where I would end up.

Your father inherited the store?

His great-uncle was the original Cosmi. Cosmi Quattro was from Reggio Calabria, Italy. Came over in 1928 on the ferry to New York. Came down to Philadelphia and was a stonemason for a few years, then opened this store with his wife, Pauline. She was only 4 foot 10, but she was a great butcher - probably better than he was. At the time, my dad's father was in World War II, and his mother was working three jobs to pay the bills, so Pauline used to pick him up at school and bring him to the store. He worked here pretty much from when he was 5 years old, and then it became his in 1976. It was a market back then, with four aisles of groceries.

When did you start selling sandwiches?

That wasn't until the early '80s. It was my idea. My dad thought I was crazy. I told him, "We live in a fast world, people don't always have the time to make their own sandwiches." We were only doing a handful a day, and we were exhausted from doing it. But each week, each month, each year, we seemed to do a little more. Then Rick Nichols did a story for the Inquirer, and it really put us on the national map. Our business escalated three-fold.

How did Rick Nichols find you; do you know?

Came in cold turkey. Didn't tell me, just ordered a sandwich. Our normal Italian hoagie has gabagool, salami and provolone, but for his, he asked me to put a little mortadell on it. After the article came out, everyone was asking for that sandwich, so we actually had to change our Italian hoagie to fit what Rick ordered. We're probably one of the only places to put mortadell in standard, but it is a difference-maker. It's an underrated sandwich meat, packed with a lot of flavor.

So, gabagool? Mortadell?

What, "capicola"? I don't know what that is. There's a whole different language down here, especially if you're over 60. Mortadella is mortadell. Mozzarella is scamutz. Bleach is "javello water." American cheese they call cream cheese. Water ice they call lemonade. They come in and say, "Hey, what flavors of lemonade you got?" I say, "Pink and regular." They don't know what I'm talking about.

When did you stop selling groceries?

Unfortunately, also in '99, right after the article, there was a fire in the next-door apartment, which leaked into our store. So we were closed for around nine months. Everything happens for a reason - the fortunate thing is nobody was hurt – and I convinced my father to phase out the groceries and increase the prepared-food part.

How many sandwiches do you sell nowadays?

During the week, we have a lot of office people, so it's more of a mix - we do a lot of salads for the lunch crowd. Over a weekend, we probably do 400 to 500 sandwiches. I would say we sell a tad more cheesesteaks than anything else, especially on the weekends when we get a lot of out-of-towners.

What's in your cheesesteak?

There are some secrets to it, but here's one I can tell you: every day we cook probably about 20 pounds of bacon on the grill, so it's like a built-in flavor savor. For the steak, we use what's called loin tail - it's right next to the sirloin, but with better marbling, so it cooks up nice on the grill without any added oil. If you use real lean cuts, like sirloin or ribeye, you either have to undercook it, overcook it, or saturate it with grease. A lot of the bigger-name places use ribeye, but I don't believe in ribeye.

You chop your meat, right?

Yup, we're choppers. I think it helps break down the fibers in the meat. Although on ribeye I don't think that works well. You see a lot of places that use ribeye and their steaks are kind of stringy. I call it a rubber band - I always say, our steaks don't have rubber bands in them. I don't fault those well-known places, though. They paved the way for places like me to be successful.

What kind of roll do you use?

When we first started, we used two kinds. One was Sarcone's, and the other was from Vilotti-Maranelli Bakery, which was owned by my grandfather. He used to have the second-biggest bakery business in the city, after Amoroso. He supplied Pat's, Geno's, all the hoagie shops. Then it was bought out by D'Ambrosio Bakery. Now we use three rolls: Carangi's and Sarcone's for seeded, and Aversa for unseeded. In my opinion, the seeded bread works really well for hot sandwiches, it holds up and doesn't get soggy. But every customer gets to choose. We're all about choice here. Our menu is huge - it's an eight-fold.

Have you noticed shifting trends in what people order?

Ten years ago, I don't think anybody had avocado on anything, other than guacamole. Nowadays, everybody's adding avocado. Fresh mozzarella's big. Aged balsamic. Here at Cosmi's we have a lot of hipsters; a lot of the younger generation comes in here.

How do they hear about you; do you advertise?

Not much. Most of it is word of mouth, and through awards. We've also gotten a lot of good television play. Any day now we're gonna be on an episode of [the Travel Channel's] Food Paradise. That'll be exciting, because usually when they air these we get hit with a lot of new business. We were on ESPN Gameday just recently when they were here for the Temple-Notre Dame game. They asked for the bread, Whiz and meat all separate, and Ron Jaworski actually constructed a Cosmi's cheesesteak live on the air.

How'd ESPN find you?

I think Anthony Gargano, the local radio announcer, he made that connection. We have a lot of well-known personalities that are regulars here - Glen Macnow, Mike Missanelli. We do a lot of catering for the Flyers and the Sixers. Andy Reid used to come in. And Questlove comes here all the time - he's a chicken cheesesteak guy.

How often are you here?

Probably around 60 or 65 hours a week. Definitely six days a week, sometimes seven days. I like to be hands-on, make sure everything goes as planned. This business is all about unpredictability. You could have a tour bus of 80 people come in, unannounced, and you've gotta be ready for that. You might do heavy cheesesteaks one day, heavy hoagies the next. The key is quality control. We buy everything short term - we don't buy for the whole week ahead of time, because this way, we can monitor what we'll need, and make sure everything's fresh.

Ever thought about opening a second location?

We thought about doing a second place in Jersey, where I live, but we haven't found the right situation yet. There's a lot of people you see open a second location and then close it. Running a place like this is still tricky for me, and I've been doing it a long time. But I've got a great staff, supportive family, and great customers. The relationship with the customers is the best part. Having people who are your peers come in and say, "Hey man, that sandwich was awesome, thank you so much" - that's what it makes it all worthwhile.

Cosmi's Deli

1501 S. 8th St., 215-468-6093

Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday