UP CLOSE & PERSONAL
WITH ALAN K. STOUT
Peter Ventura is the co-owner and operator of Coney Island Lunch in Scranton. He operates the business with his brother, Bob. The family-run business was first opened by their grandfather in 1923. Peter first began working there regularly in 1972, when he was a junior in high school. A native of Scranton, he is a graduate of Scranton Technical High School. He lived in Spring Brook Township for 25 years and has lived in Clarks Summit since 2006. He and his wife, Kathryn, have two sons, Mark and John.
Meet Peter Ventura …
Though you literally grew up around a family business and have helped run the business for more than 30 years, was there ever a time when you thought you might do something else? Or did you always know this is where you wanted to be?
Actually, my second year out of high school, I was going to join the military. I had everything filled out and was ready to go. I went to Wilkes-Barre to be sworn in, and I changed my mind. And they left me there. They wouldn’t give me a ride back to Scranton. I had to call my father, and he came and got me. Needless to say, he was happy. That was my only adventure outside. I started working for my grandfather when I was eleven years old. I mean, you can’t actually consider it “working” when you’re family, but I came down on a Saturday, and he needed the floor mopped or something, and he gave me 50 cents. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but I was able to buy five packs of baseball cards, a 16 oz. bottle of Coke and a big bag of chips. And that was the kicker. Having money. All of these years, the business has always been good to me.
Didn’t you originally take over your grandfather’s shift, which was the night shift?
Yes. We went through some of the worst times in Scranton in the ’70s, when things were really bad. And this area was sort of, not the “red light” district, but it was called “The Strip,” on Lackawanna Avenue, and we had a lot of “entertainment” that used to come in, nightly. (Laughs) And I actually liked it. And another good thing about it was that I was able to go out at night. We would close, and by the time I cleaned up, all my friends who were out would already be loaded, and I’d be out there straight. There were a lot of after-hours bars back then. All of that just worked to make me want to stay here even more.
What do you still enjoy about it the most?
I can’t really say that I’ve had some bad days here. Generally, the people that come in every day — and there are actually people that come in every day — I like talking with them. I’m a talker. Baseball, politics … I’m the perfect person for this kind of business. A lot of times, you’ll get a business, and if they can’t deal with the public, they’re not going to make it. Whereas a guy like me, I love it.
Your cheeseburger was named one of the best in the country by NASCAR Illustrated and your hot dogs have been featured on Fox News. What is your favorite item on your own menu?
I eat hot dogs. I eat them all the time. And I have unbelievablely perfect cholesterol numbers. Good arteries. I guess I was born blessed. And everywhere I go, to any town I go to, if is see little hot dog joints, I’m there. I’ve got to try them out.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
A few things. I’m an 18th century guy in the 21st century. I really like U.S. history, especially 1700s and 1800s, and I like to go to historic places. I also enjoy Eve Online. I’ve been playing since 2007. I have five high-def monitors in my office, connected to two computers. I’m an industrialist in the game. I build ships and mines.
The restaurant features a lot of decorations dedicated to baseball. I assume you’re a big fan.
I love baseball. I was a season ticket holder with the Red Barons and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees for many years and I enjoy minor league games. I also had season tickets for the New Jersey Cardinals, and I go out to Williamsport once in a while, because the Crosscutters are a Cardinal team. And I go to Binghamton a lot.
All-time favorite movie?
I just watched “Ben Hur” again. I’ve watched it a million times. And my wife recently got me “Rogue One” for my birthday, and it was the only “Star Wars” movie I didn’t see in the theater. I love anything that starts with “Star,” whether it’s “Star Wars” or “Star Trek.”
Favorite thing about NEPA?
I can walk out the front door of my restaurant and be less than two hours from New York and Philadelphia, and look to my left and see a mountain green, and look to my right and see a mountain green, and in between, in this valley, is a little bit of everything. And that’s pretty hard to find anywhere. This is a real melting pot. In a lot of places, you have to go to sections of the city to find something, but in Scranton or Wilkes-Barre, just up and down, north to south, east to west, you’re going to find something you’re going to want. And that’s what’s unique about it.
Do you remember your first car?
A 1972 Chevy Vega. Brand new. It was nice. Beautiful car. I paid $1,845 for it, and I paid with cash. I drove it maybe four blocks, up to Scranton Central, and the engine blew. I didn’t know what to do, so I left it on the side of the road.
That happened to the brand new car?
What happened was they didn’t put oil in the engine. It was an aluminum block engine, and the piston just shot right through it. It was steaming. I called my father and he said, “That’s enough of those. I want you to look at this station wagon.” It had a 454 in it. What did I know? I just heard “454” and said, “OK.” He gave me some money towards it, because it was about $5,600. Little did I know he wanted me to transport stuff for the business. (Laughs.) So that was my second car. The first one lasted about 20 minutes.
Biggest pet peeve?
All of the years I’ve been here, and I’m 62 years old, I can’t stand it when people put Scranton or this area down. I won’t get mad at them, but I’ll tell them about all of the good things. I’ll say, “We might have had some trying times here and there, but it’s not like what you’re saying.” That’s my pet peeve. Don’t badmouth Scranton if you’re going to talk to me, because it’s been good to me.
A cat, Barney.
Is there anything about you that might surprise people?
I can watch “Downton Abbey,” and I’ll start crying during the crying scenes. I’m a big guy, but if there are sad parts in movies, like a sad scene in “The Green Mile,” I’ll start bawling. My wife will be sitting there and I’ll try to hide it, but I have a soft spot. I don’t cry when I’m making hot dogs.
Have you had what you might consider a defining personal moment?
It happened when I was a kid. One time, my stepfather told me, “Whenever you meet someone, shake their hand.” I was 13 or 14 years old, and I don’t know why, but it stuck with me. Everywhere I went, I shook hands, and my father was always proud of that. He used to race horses, and we had them in stable, and the first time I did it, we had a new driver, and I met him down near Pocono Downs. My father introduced me to him, and I stuck my hand out to shake his hand, and it sort of surprised him. When he was walking away, he said to my father, “That was really nice that your son shook my hand.” And he said, “I taught him to do that.” That was memorable … my father telling me to shake people’s hands.”
UP CLOSE & PERSONAL with ALAN K. STOUT is a regular feature in electric city, profiling people from all walks of life throughout NEPA. Reach Alan at email@example.com.
photos by emma black