Last chance to score iconic Brass Rail cheesesteak will be at Allentown Fair

Written by on August 24, 2022

Last chance to score iconic Brass Rail cheesesteak will be at Allentown Fair

By Ryan Kneller
August 24, 2022

ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Your last chance to score an iconic Allentown food is rapidly approaching.

The Brass Rail, a full-service restaurant where generations of families enjoyed cheesesteaks, cheese dogs, pizza and pot roast sandwiches, closed in June after 91 years of business.

The landmark eatery, however, plans to sell its famous Phil’s Original Cheesesteak, along with a few other staples, one final time at the 170th Allentown Fair, Aug. 31 through Sept. 5.

“I definitely know for certain that it will be our last year,” owner Mark Sorrentino said. “It’s a pretty big operation, and I have nowhere to store all of the equipment that we use. All of the fair stuff sits in a trailer on the restaurant property, and it just wouldn’t be worth it to rent a huge unit.”

In 2020, Sorrentino and his sister, Pam Ray, signed an agreement of sale for the 3015 Lehigh St. property with a developer in hopes of moving the longstanding restaurant to a yet-to-be-determined site.

Those plans fell through over the past two years, however, due to “a multitude of factors,” including labor shortages, supply chain disruptions and rising inflation, Sorrentino said.

“You continue to see all over the place – not just in the restaurant business but in nearly all industries – the lack of adequate staffing, which is a huge problem,” Sorrentino said.

“Another potential problem is trying to get product. We’ve had a great relationship with our meat supply company, Korte, and Egypt Star Bakery for the rolls. But sometimes the fries, onion chips and other stuff like that became hard to get.”

Inflation also played a big part in The Brass Rail’s closure. When Sorrentino and Ray considered moving the restaurant a couple of years ago, they started to hear more and more about sky-high prices for rent and property, and “it eventually didn’t make a lot of sense,” Sorrentino said.

The restaurant’s business model would have had to be “completely rethought,” Sorrentino said.
For example, the siblings considered raising the prices of some menu items, including the cost of a cheesesteak from $6.50 to $8.50, but they weren’t sure if even that would work, because of increasing labor costs.

“We used to get some kids from high school to work in the kitchen, and they were making $7.50 or $8 an hour,” Sorrentino said. “Now you’ve got to pay people like double that, and it’s really difficult to raise your prices high enough to offset those costs.”

“We were never really known as the place where you went to get a foot-long cheesesteak for $18, and I seriously doubt a lot of our clientele would’ve gone for an increase that high.”

The Brass Rail traces its roots to an Allentown hamburger and hot dog stand that Sorrentino’s grandfather, Philip Sorrentino, started in 1931.

The food’s popularity led to an expansion that included a brick-and-mortar restaurant at 1137 Hamilton St. in 1933, its first appearance at Allentown Fair in 1938 and a second Allentown location on Lehigh Street in 1961. The downtown Allentown venue closed in 2001.

Sorrentino and Ray spent much of their childhood in the family business, including peeling onions for cheesesteaks at the Allentown Fair. They took over the restaurant after the death of their father, Richard Sorrentino, in 1996.

“Our staff and customers are like family to us,” Sorrentino said. “That’s the hardest part of this whole thing – missing those relationships. It’s a big hole to fill.”

At this year’s fair, The Brass Rail will offer a condensed menu of cheesesteaks, hot dogs, pizza and fries. Cheesesteaks will cost $8 each.

Sorrentino is able to use the restaurant’s kitchen to prepare sauce and other premade items for at least another month, he said.

Closing on the sale of The Brass Rail property, set to become a Royal Farms convenience store, is expected to take place in October or November, he said.

For longtime Brass Rail fans, there also will be an opportunity to stock up on wrapped steak sandwiches to take home and put in their freezer, Sorrentino said. The sandwiches will come with sauce and peppers on the side and heating instructions.

“It’s definitely hard to say goodbye,” Mark said. “Without our customers, we wouldn’t have been around for so many years. The Sorrentino family appreciates them immensely.”

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