How a family restaurant and the eastern Kentucky rock climbing community grew up together
Dario Ventura remembers the beginnings of Miguel’s Pizza & Rock Climbing Shop, from an ice cream store in the eastern Kentucky mountain town of Slade to one of the centerpieces of the international rock climbing community.
“We had 32 flavors of Häagen-Dazs and it was actually pretty popular. We used to have lines out the door,” says the 32-year-old son of the owners, Miguel and Susan. In 1986, they switched to selling pizza.
“We felt bad we weren’t contributing anything healthy. We were just feeding people tons of ice cream,” he recalls. And something else happened, Dario says: Miguel and Susan listened to a unique group of customers.
“Rock climbers started hanging out here and they said, ‘Man, we’d like something after a day of climbing when we’re too tired to cook for ourselves, and ice cream is just not going to cut it.’”
Today, Chris Brewer, president and CEO of Clark Energy Cooperative based in Winchester, which provides Miguel’s with electricity, says simply, “They have good pizza.”
Good pizza with choices to rival the most urban hipster menu. Toppings range from artichokes to zucchini, with tofu and mango salsa in between, as well as the more standard sausage and mushrooms. The crust can be gluten-free and the flour comes from Kentucky’s Weisenberger Mills.
“On weekends the whole area gets quite a bit of traffic,” says Brewer.
And they’re not just coming for the food. An essential part of Miguel’s story is the way it has helped nurture local rock climbing into a growing tourism industry around the ultra-scenic Red River Gorge just 5 miles away.
A study by Eastern Kentucky University found that about 7,500 climbers visit the Red River Gorge annually, spending $3.6 million. At Miguel’s, they can camp on part of the 50 acres of land, shower, wash their clothes, and buy gear at the rock climbing shop.
One of the authors of the study, James Maples, assistant professor of sociology at Eastern Kentucky University, credits Miguel’s for helping create that culture of climbers.
“Climbers come to eat great food that’s healthy and good for their bodies. It’s tasty after being on the wall all day,” he says. “I can’t imagine the climbing community in Red River Gorge functioning in the same way without Miguel’s support.”
The president of the Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition agrees.
“It’s a central point in the region’s climbing community,” says Josephine Sterr. “Before there was anything else, there was Miguel’s.”
A shot in the dark
Miguel’s stands out on Natural Bridge Road, at the edge of Daniel Boone National Forest, with its bright yellow storefront and sign designed by Miguel that pictures a stylized drawing of a mustachioed face with a big, toothy smile and long, flowing hair. Picnic tables in front of the building seat clumps of climbers from all over the world, breakfast through supper. Their tents are pitched in the field next door. Behind Miguel’s there’s a pavilion with picnic tables where campers tend to hang out. At the back of the valley are a three-story house that has been converted for weddings and other events, a bakery where the bread and pizza dough gets made, a well-stocked shop of rock climbing gear, and the home of Dario’s parents.
Miguel, 64, came to the U.S. from Portugal with his parents when he was 6. He grew up in Connecticut, and then returned there briefly, but moved to Kentucky to raise a family after working as an artist in California.
“My parents are unconventional and they wanted to try something new,” Dario says. So they took “a shot in the dark,” sold their house in Connecticut, and joined some friends to buy land in Kentucky. They rented a noted area general store, The Old Jottem Down Store, to sell ice cream and then pizza.
Now, Dario is taking an increasing role in the family business.
“I love to cook,” he says. He went to business school in Lexington to supplement that interest.
“I came back because I realized they were not teaching me how to run a good business, but were teaching me how to be cutthroat and how to outdo your competition,” Dario says. “I grew up in a small family business so that seemed foreign to me. My father’s whole take was, do your business right and don’t worry about the guy down the road.”
Twenty-five years ago, that ethic of running your own business joined forces with a dedicated group of rock climbers attracted by the unusual geology of the area. An article by Bill Strachan, who has been executive director of the Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition, describes the rise of the Cumberland Plateau from Sandstone, and the centuries of weathering that produced challenging rock overhangs. As a result, he writes, “There exists literally lifetimes of possibilities for the exploration of new crags and the development of new routes.”
The Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition formed and bought land, attracting more climbers to the area. And Miguel’s sat right in the middle.
“In the ’90s we embraced these climbers,” says Dario. “We gave them a cheap place to sleep. We gave them a shower. We fed them. At that time climbing was so unknown that, to the rest of the world, you were just kind of a weirdo. We’ve been into rock climbing way before rock climbing was a thing.”
Dario’s a rock climber. He met his wife when she came down from Wisconsin to climb.
Miguel’s hosts several climbing events through the year, including fund-raisers in the spring and at Halloween. A major annual activity is the Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition’s Rockoberfest, which attracts about 1,000 climbers and this year will be held at the nearby Land of the Arches Campground in Campton, October 7-9.
Dario’s favorite event is Thanksgiving, when Miguel’s cooks around 18 turkeys for a sellout group of as many as 400. “It’s first come, first served—people show up, buy a ticket, and we serve till we run out of food,” Dario says.
After the Thanksgiving extravaganza, Miguel’s closes for the winter and reopens March 1. Dario hopes Miguel and Susan splurge on a vacation, or even just go out to a fancy dinner, but he’s not optimistic.
“If they’re going to spend money to buy something nice, it’s going to be some type of investment into the business,” he says. “They’ve been working hard for a long time. This isn’t necessarily their passion; this is what they’re attached to. They built this from nothing so this is what their reality is, and they enjoy that.”Rocktoberfest booming thanks to dedicated climbers and unique geology
THE 16th annual Rocktoberfest this fall marks another chapter in a story of the attraction of eastern Kentucky as an international rock climbing destination. The October 7–9 gathering is hosted by the Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition. To accommodate the 1,000 climbers expected, the event’s home base, which has been moved to several locations through the years since it was first headquartered at Miguel’s Pizza & Rock Climbing Shop in Slade, will be at the Land of the Arches Campground in nearby Campton.
One of the beginning chapters came in 1996, with the formation of the Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition. That group worked with landowners, including the U.S. Forest Service, to ease restrictions on climbing, such as drilling safety bolts into the rock faces, and parking. The Coalition also bought key tracts of land.
Another milestone came in 2007 when Petzl, a French construction supplier that also sells climbing gear, held its annual international RocTrip to the Red River Gorge. The event brought worldwide attention to rock climbing in the area, and helped pay off the Coalition’s debt from land purchases.
Coalition President Josephine Sterr credits “a unique geology” with climbing’s popularity in eastern Kentucky, as well as rock formations that range from expert to “very beginner-friendly.”
James Maples, assistant professor of sociology at Eastern Kentucky University, co-authored a study on the economic impact of rock climbing in the region. The study recommends taking steps to further develop rock climbing as a tourism industry.
Maples says future studies should further document and monitor how rock climbing can help the local economy. He also wants to add to the knowledge of rock climbing. He says there are plans over the next two years to collect rock-climbing oral histories and make them available through Eastern Kentucky University’s William H. Berge Oral History Center. Maples has also just signed a contract with West Virginia University Press to write a book, Summiting Appalachia: Rock Climbing, Local Communities, and Negotiating Control of Local Resources. Publication is scheduled for 2018.
Gerry Seavo James