Three days before the Super Bowl, Jalen Hurts faced a question that could split a fan base: “Where’s the best place in Philly to grab a cheesesteak?”
Politicians are prepped for how to answer this one. Fearing conflict, other star athletes have tried to abstain. “Well …” Hurts started.
He paused, smirked, then continued — and changed the lives of twin sisters chasing a dream.
“So I have a cheesesteak that I made at FoodChasers,” Hurts said. “It’s in Philly. And it’s called ‘The Jalen Special.’ I put my little ingredients on it. I made it just right. So if you ever want to go try one, go to FoodChasers.”
FoodChasers’ Kitchen, a restaurant in the Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park started during the coronavirus pandemic by Kala and Maya Johnstone, was not known as a cheesesteak destination. Before Hurts’ public endorsement, its most popular dishes were breakfast items, and the restaurant used about 10 pounds of meat a week for cheesesteaks. When Hurts’ comments at the news conference went viral, FoodChasers chopped through 100 pounds of beef over the next three days, grilling so much that they had to call their supplier for more.
Hurts first visited the restaurant in June 2022, when his signature cheesesteak was created. It was on the menu for six months before the Super Bowl news conference. In the five months after, sales of the sandwich increased by more than 300 percent.
“When Jalen comes into your life and says: ‘You’re valuable, you’re good enough to be on the stage with the big boys in Philly to sell cheesesteaks, and you girls’ voices should be heard … so come with me, get in my articles, get on TV,’ we just cry about it, because we grew up not seeing ourselves like this,” Kala said. “He changed our lives. You couldn’t put money on it. You can’t put it into words. He literally changed our lives and he added value to us. And not just Maya and I. He added value to Black women. Because so many women come in and say, ‘You guys’ story inspire us.’”
The Johnstones share two passions: food and the Philadelphia Eagles. Their father used to take them to training camp at West Chester University, where they would wait for autographs from Randall Cunningham and Reggie White. The allegiance was tested when their older brother, Lance, played 11 seasons in the NFL for the then-Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings, but the twins remained devoted Eagles fans.
They have long dreamt of owning a restaurant together; more than a decade ago they began crafting a potential menu. They also started a social media account documenting their favorite foods from around the world and the dishes they created — from pasta to catfish to chicken wings and, yes, cheesesteaks.
During the pandemic, they retired as principals determined to chase their restaurant dream. They leased space in a brick building with a front patio on a triangular block steps from the local train station. Walk inside, and you’ll see a black wall with a white outline of Philadelphia’s skyline and the restaurant’s logo that includes the message “Love, Eat, Travel.” They fed their first customers in the winter of 2021. The following June, a Pepsi rep visited seeking a Black-owned restaurant to feature in a commercial. She came on a particularly hectic day, and by the end of her visit, FoodChasers was selected. They were told Hurts would star in the commercial.
Lance advised his sisters to curb their enthusiasm. After a decade in the NFL, he crossed paths with some quarterbacks who were jerks.
Hurts arrived at the restaurant sans entourage and could have been any customer. At one point, the commercial’s producers requested a back room be cleared for Hurts to use. One problem: The Johnstones’ nephew was in there playing a video game. “No, the kid stays,” Hurts said. The commercial was supposed to only include a brief appearance. Hurts stayed five hours.
“You want to make a cheesesteak?” the Johnstones asked at one point.
Hurts donned an apron and went to work. The only faux pas came when Hurts asked for mozzarella cheese. He might be the quarterback of the Eagles, but the Johnstones don’t use mozzarella on their cheesesteaks. That’s when Hurts was introduced to their Cooper Sharp cheese.
That’s how he came up with his blend.
Hurts combined the seasoned steak, Cooper Sharp, fried onions and mayonnaise on a roll for a creation that went on the menu as “The Jalen Special.” The Johnstones showed him the proper way to grill the steak and flip it on a roll. “Now welcome to Philly!” they told him. He spent time with everyone in the restaurant, listening to their stories and even comparing his Griddy dance with some kids’ attempts.
“If you didn’t know he was the No. 1 quarterback and an Eagle, especially in this city, you wouldn’t know,” Brent Johnstone, the twins’ brother who also helps with the restaurant, said before employing some Philly slang. “He’s just that boul Jalen.”
On the way out, Hurts turned back to the sisters.
“I’m going to support y’all,” he told them.
They didn’t know what he meant. They looked at each other and thought, maybe he’ll come back with the offensive line.
“We’re going to get (Jason) Kelce!” they joked.
Kala and Maya attended training camp last summer and were caught in a crowd of crazed Eagles fans screaming toward the quarterback. Security around Hurts can be tight, but he spotted familiar faces and went right up to them.
“That’s my girls!” Hurts said.
In October of last season, Hurts appeared on ESPN’s “ManningCast” with Peyton and Eli Manning during a Los Angeles Rams–San Francisco 49ers “Monday Night Football” game. They showed the clip of Hurts on the grill making the cheesesteak. Eli Manning asked about the process. Before Hurts answered, he used this national stage to give a plug.
“Shoutout to my people at FoodChasers, the twins at FoodChasers,” Hurts said.
“I know they have a lot of top places in Philly for cheesesteaks, but mine was pretty legit,” Hurts added later on the broadcast.
The Eagles kept winning, and as Hurts’ profile swelled like the midsection of a cheesesteak taste tester, he took FoodChasers along for the ride. Before Philadelphia’s Thursday night game against Hurts’ hometown Houston Texans in November, Amazon wanted an interview with the Eagles quarterback. He agreed — so long as it was at FoodChasers. Hurts sat at the restaurant with reporter Taylor Rooks, eating, subtly offering free promotion for the sisters’ enterprise.
“We didn’t want to overstep our bounds, but we were like, ‘Oh, it’d be dope if he teaches her how to make a cheesesteak,’” Kala said.
They know their quarterback. Hurts made his way to the grill, showing Rooks how The Jalen Special was made.
“You can see in that little moment why he’s great as a quarterback, because he processes it,” Brent said.
“And he’s coachable!” the sisters added together.
In December, Hurts visited a school following the fatal shooting of a 14-year-old at a high school football game. The visit included a catered lunch for the students. When a national publication followed Hurts along for the appearance, the quarterback made sure the reporter mentioned FoodChasers in the article.
Leading up to the NFC Championship Game, a representative of Hurts reached out to the sisters with a message: Keep this quiet because no one wants to jinx anything, but should the Eagles win, Hurts wants to come by for his postgame meal with his family. The sisters prepared for his visit — crawfish, catfish, macaroni and cheese and lamb chops, in addition to their typical menu staples. They weren’t sure it would happen but figured the food could be sold the next day if needed.
The twins attended the game. They celebrated with everyone during the Eagles’ 31-7 blowout. What they didn’t tell anyone in their section was that the star quarterback everyone was cheering for might eat their food after the game. They raced to the subway to make it back to Elkins Park. (It’s about 30-40 minutes when driving, traffic depending, longer on the subway.)
Around 8:30 p.m. ET, Hurts came through the door still wearing his purple suit and championship hat. He celebrated with friends and family with a spread cooked specially for him.
“You didn’t have to do this,” he said.
“Yeah, we kind of did!” Maya said.
Brent told his sisters: “After winning the (NFC championship) at 24, I wouldn’t be at Elkins Park! As the quarterback of the Eagles? Jalen’s running this city and he’s sitting in Elkins Park with y’all?!”
The Johnstones went to Arizona for the Super Bowl. They didn’t have tickets — and didn’t attend the game — but wanted to experience the atmosphere surrounding the event. A few days before the game, Kala paced the street trying to find Wi-Fi when friends flooded her phone with texts asking if she saw the video. She logged onto Instagram and the direct messages piled into her inbox. She waited to open the video until they were together — it’s a twin thing — and witnessed Hurts’ answer at the news conference together.
“He could have dodged that question,” Maya said.
“That’s what made Maya and I cry,” Kala said. “In his biggest moment, he remembered us.”
Even Lance, who warned them about quarterbacks, was converted. He had seen all that Hurts did for his sisters. He knew how powerful (and lucrative) a Super Bowl quarterback’s words could be.
Back home at the shop, the orders flooded for The Jalen Special (or “the Jalen,” as they call it). Customers came from around the country to see what Hurts endorsed. There were orders in bulk — more than a dozen sandwiches at once for all to taste Hurts’ favorite cheesesteak.
“You’ve never seen it like this,” they were told on the phone. “There were lines around the corner like you’ve never seen!”
Not bad for a breakfast spot.
“Jalen made us a cheesesteak place,” Kala said. “It made us stop and pause.”
“If he didn’t put us in that spotlight, no one would hear our story,” Maya said.
When Hurts is asked about what’s next in his career, he says there is neither a ceiling nor an arrival. The sisters now feel the same. They are planning another location with a bar. They’re considering an airport location also, and imagining different markets they can enter. They compared themselves to Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown, simply trying to catch the pass that Hurts threw at them.
“Before, the dream was always just to open up a successful restaurant,” Kala said. “None of this was in the playbook. So now we don’t put a cap. … That’s another thing Jalen gave us: He gave us bigger dreams.”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Patrick Smith / Getty Images, Zach Berman / The Athletic and courtesy of Maya and Kala Johnstone)