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Miguel’s Pizza — where climbers from around the world go as they make their way to Red River Gorge


Miguels-carved-sign-on-top-of-store

By Claire A. Johnson
KyForward intern

Drive through east-central Kentucky and you likely will encounter a smiling face with flowing golden hair resembling the sun on bumper stickers, shirts and tank tops.

Head toward the Red River Gorge in Powell County and you’ll find that image attached to its home.

The logo belongs to the iconic Miguel’s Pizza and Climb Shop, which for years has greeted rock climbers and tourists when they visit Kentucky’s renown Red River Gorge, part of the Daniel Boone National Forest and on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been designated a National Natural Landmark.

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Located in Slade, Miguel’s is the go-to place for thousands of visitors and climbers who know the gorge – and the classic eatery – as a destination, based either on experience or reputation.

Owner Miguel Ventura once wanted to see the world himself. Now the world comes to him as climbers from foreign countries and around the U.S. make the journey to the gorge.

The sport of rock climbing has gained popularity in the past ten years. Those who tackle the gorge account for $3.6 million in regional economic impact, according to a study done by Eastern Kentucky University. And a good number of them stop off at Miguel’s, the last eatery before entering the park, which has no commercial development. On the way out, many of them stop off again.

Ventura’s family emigrated from Portugal to the United States. They passed through New York City and landed in Waterbury, Connecticut, around the 1960s. Waterbury was known during that time as the “Brass Capital of the World.” Ventura said immigrants made their way to Waterbury to work in the factories.

As a self-taught artist, he wished to see more. As a teen in Connecticut, he was accepted into the Rhode Island Schoool of Design but couldn’t afford to go. Instead he headed to California to open an art studio but returned to Connecticut to start a family with his wife Susan.

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“I was an artist,” Ventura said, “so I tried to see what the world was like.”

Once back on Nantucket Island, Ventura became friends with a man from Kentucky, Neville Pohl, whose work was putting shingles on roofs.

“We kept in contact, and I visited in Kentucky.”

On that visit to Kentucky for a wedding, Ventura discovered Red River Gorge.

Pohl told him about a property investment he made at the gorge, so Ventura and his wife, Susan, made a life-changing move.

“We just got up and left,” Ventura said. “We came down here with nothing really.”

Miguel and children

Miguel and children

In 1984, Ventura and his wife rented an old storefront called The Old Jottem Down Store. An ice cream shop emerged called The Rainbow Door.

“We had lots of business, but we couldn’t make a living. We were just surviving,” Ventura said.

When authors and climbers Tom Martin and Martin Hackworth saw the number of rock climbers hanging around the property, they saw an opportunity.

“Those two saw my business,” Ventura said. “They saw potential here, so I sold the other half (of the building) and sold climbing gear out of it.”

“I didn’t know a thing about climbing,” when he moved to Eastern Kentucky, Ventura said as he laughed. “I just thought it was something rich kids did who didn’t work.”

Ventura quickly learned about the creativity and community behind the sport of rock climbing from the climbers who made his store a destination.

Known as “The Camp Four of the East” by campers from all over the world, a campground developed at his place. Ventura said the choice to switch from ice cream to pizza was a bit of a lucky experiment. “Climbers were hanging out here more, and they needed a place to eat.”

Pizza -- handmade with local ingredients

Pizza — handmade with local ingredients

So the Venturas tried sandwiches first, then switched to pizza.

“We would bring pieces out to the climbers and ask, ‘Hey, how do you like it?’” Ventura said. The answers drove the switch to a pizzeria that started with a beaten-down, small house that once stood by the store, which had an old oven inside.

Miguels is a family-run business. All of the dough and crusts are handmade and topped with homemade tomato sauce. Ventura’s family included grain millers and bakers for their village in Portugal, “so I knew how to make the dough.”

All of the ingredients are fresh, some even from local farms. Customers can choose more than 30 different combinations to create the pizza they desire.

Adding to the pizzeria is exactly how Ventura said he runs the store. If he sees a need, he tries to fill it. Meeting the needs of tourists and climbers as well as the surrounding community brought both success and obstacles.

“Our life has really been the luck of the Irish,” Ventura said.

Ventura said he has learned that climbing is an international pursuit, as most of the climbers who visit come from South Africa and Switzerland.

The call of the gorge attracting climbers from around the world.

The call of the gorge — climbers from around the world.

“In the ‘90s … you could go back here and hear 10 different languages,” Ventura said.

Colleges students have also been a boon to business. Ventura said certain students from Purdue University, for example, came every weekend during their college years, staying at the campground.

“You live with them all through college. I even have parents tell me they’re glad their kids are here,” Ventura said, referring to college student climbers.

Ventura still receives Christmas cards from the Purdue students.

“It’s been a really successful and satisfying thing financially and spiritually,” Ventura said, “Being around creative people keeps me on my toes.”

For more information on Miguel’s Pizza and Climb Shop, visit the website.

Claire Johnson is a journalism senior at the University of Kentucky. She is from Paintsville.

Red River Gorge (Kentucky Tourism photo)

Red River Gorge (Kentucky Tourism photo)


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