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Copperhead Grille

By LVEDC Staff on August 21, 2012

Walking into the Copperhead Grille on Airport Road in Allentown is like going to a family reunion with cousins you haven’t seen in years. Have a seat, grab a drink and before long someone comes up to say, “Hi, how are you? Need anything? Good to see you again.”

Odds are the greeter will be Michael L. Dontas or his cousin, Michael P. Dontas, both named for their Greek grandfather and both raised with the idea that you treat the customer like family. That family connection is important to the cousins, sons of Greek immigrant fathers who made careers in the restaurant field before helping their sons grow in the same business.

Financed in part by U.S. Small Business Administration Small Business First Fund loan and Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority (PIDA) available through the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC), the Copperhead Grille on Airport Road is the cousins’ second restaurant. Opened in October 2007, it now employs about 70 people and about 40 percent are full-time, said Michael L., sometimes referred to as “Junior” by family members because he is three years younger than his 32-year-old cousin.

Michael says LVEDC’s assistance was a big help as the partners set out on their second enterprise.

“By going through LVEDC instead of a bank or mortgage company, there were definitely breaks available,” he said. “It’s worth it.”

The Airport Road restaurant – on the site of the former Damon’s – features 18 televisions in the bar and dining area, including three very large-screen TVs in the dining area dedicated to sports. The Dontas cousins strive to create a “polished casual” or “sophisticated casual” atmosphere for the restaurant, Michael says.

“We’re family oriented. We’re not a sports pub, we’re not a sports bar. We want to be known as the Valley’s premiere sports grille,” he said.

That goal got a boost this summer with the opening of Coca Cola Park and the debut of the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs just around the corner off American Parkway, but on any given day sports fans and business people can be seen in the Copperhead watching golf, baseball, the NBA championships or catching up on the latest sports news.

Both Dontas cousins are sports fans and their formal education was actually in more sports-related fields rather than the family business. But shortly after both graduated from college, they had the opportunity to take over a closed family restaurant on Route 378 in Center Valley and created the first Copperhead.

“I was in charge of the bar. I never worked a bar in my life. We grew up as busboys, washing dishes and working as short-order cooks,” Michael L. remembers. “But it was gang-busters from the beginning and we never looked back.”

A good part of their restaurant education, along with many of the recipes that are the mainstays of the menu at both Copperheads, came from family – naturally. Their fathers, Louie and Pete Dontas, in 1983 bought the Parkland Restaurant on Walbert Avenue in South Whitehall Township and still run it. The Dontas brothers emigrated from Greece in the 1970s and worked their way through New York City to the Lehigh Valley, where Michael L’s mother grew up in Bethlehem, and both boys were raised there.

Michael L. says the goal is to build a solid base for both Copperheads – the Center Valley restaurant will undergo renovations soon, he said – and then maybe look at expanding the model to a regional or even national approach.

“We got the basics from our parents – treat people like family, give them good food, keep it affordable,” he says. “We’re not rookies anymore, but we’ve still got a few gallons left in the tank. By the time I’m 40, 11 years from now, I’d like to be able to say we built something.”

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