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Longtime cheesesteak business seeks a return to Allentown

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Working for his father’s cheesesteak shop since he was a child, Vince Cocca Jr. took over the business
in 1981 and hopes to move his business to Downtown Allentown this year.
Working for his father’s cheesesteak shop since he was a child, Vince Cocca Jr. took over the business in 1981 and hopes to move his business to Downtown Allentown this year. - (Photo / )

Vince Cocca Jr. never imagined that a business his father started in the basement of the family home nearly 60 years ago would make such an impact on the people of the Greater Lehigh Valley.

At least on those who have ever had a Vince’s cheesesteak.

Working for his father’s cheesesteak shop since he was a child, out of their South Allentown home and later in life at other Vince’s spots in Allentown, Cocca Jr. continued his father’s legacy and cheesesteak, landing the company in its existing Trexlertown location.

After six years in Lower Macungie Township, Cocca Jr. is deciding where to go next with Vince’s Cheesesteaks. He is considering taking it to the revitalized Downtown Allentown, to return the business to its roots.

“Vince’s is a mainstay in the community,” said Phil Chech, one of Vince’s original customers. “I don’t know what the Lehigh Valley would be without it.”

After arriving home from serving in World War II, Vince Cocca Sr. worked at mills throughout the Lehigh Valley, trying to find his niche, until he settled in the food business in the mid-1950s.

He began testing his cooking skills and the market for cheesesteak sandwiches. In 1957, with the help of family members, he dug out the basement of his home at Seventh and Union streets in Allentown to install ovens, kitchen equipment and storage areas.

He opened Vince’s that spring in a 192 square-foot work space in his basement as a takeout and delivery shop, with his cheesesteak as the star of the limited menu.

The biggest portion of Cocca Sr.’s business became the more than 75 factories throughout the Lehigh Valley that he delivered cheesesteaks to at the time, sometimes with an order for 150 sandwiches to one factory alone. His plan was to get the people to try his cheesesteaks at lunch time, in hopes that they would return for dinner.

“My father had a dynamic personality that became his legacy,” Cocca Jr. said. “I worked very hard to maintain his name.”

As business continued to grow, in 1963 Cocca Sr. bought a 100-seat restaurant at 27th Street and Walbert Avenue in South Whitehall Township, while still operating the take-out and delivery shop at home.

The new restaurant also served the popular cheesesteak as its headliner item, but the menu was broadened to include breakfast, lunch and dinner platters, as well as pizza, hoagies, hot dogs and a salad bar.

It became known as Vince’s Drive-In, one of the first drive-in restaurants in the area. Cocca Sr. installed a bell outside so that when cars pulled up for a take-out order, they would not have to get out of their vehicle.

In 1964, Cocca Sr. built an 18-hole miniature golf course next to the restaurant, and in the 1970s he added a gift shop and banquet room. The building also had an enclosed sit-down patio.

“We were so busy that we had to sometimes borrow steak meat from other restaurants,” Cocca Jr. said.

Vince’s also became known for its presence at fairs and festivals, particularly at the annual Great Allentown Fair on 17th and Chew streets in Allentown, with its first appearance there in 1963. Cocca Jr. opened a permanent stand at the fair in 1976 and since then has been there every year.

“We are a part of Allentown, and I grew up at the [Allentown] fair,” Cocca Jr. said. “I just enjoy being there, and we want to give back to the community.”

Cocca Jr. said he takes Vince’s to nearly 20 events a year, including at carnivals and dog shows.

The cheesesteak shop in their home at Seventh and Union streets stayed open until 1971, when the city forced the Coccas to buy a home elsewhere because of a redevelopment project that affected most of the homes on the south side of Union Street.

In 1978, economic issues began to affect Vince’s Drive-In: rising gasoline prices, more malls opening in the Lehigh Valley and an increase in fast food restaurants. In addition, Cocca Sr.’s health began to decline.

The family continued to operate the drive-in until 1981, which is when Cocca Jr. took over the business.

Seven years after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, in 1985 Cocca Jr. took his father’s business in a new direction and opened Vince’s drive-thru at 15th and Allen streets in Allentown as the Lehigh Valley’s first double-sided drive-thru. Cocca Jr. served the signature cheesesteak, as well as French fries, pierogies and chili dogs.

Cocca Jr. and his wife ran the drive-thru until 1995, deciding to close shop and concentrate solely on working fairs and festivals throughout the state.

“My kids were getting older and I needed to be home with them more,” Cocca Jr. said. “Working the fairs allowed me more time with my family.”

In 2008, Cocca Jr. was ready to get back in the game and opened a Vince’s shop in Trexlertown, in the Wal-Mart shopping center on Mill Creek Road.

With 16 employees and a menu of 18 types of pizza, 20 cheesesteaks and many other sandwich and appetizer items, Cocca Jr. said although it was a slow start, the business made a name in an area that at first was not familiar with Vince’s.

“It means a lot to work for a long legacy,” said Jason Russell, a cook at the Trexlertown shop since it opened.

Cocca Jr. has his sights set on moving the business to the new Downtown Allentown, as his Trexlertown lease ends in September.

Although he said he is nervous about the reinvestment that would go with a potential transition to Allentown, Cocca Jr. is excited.

“We want to move back to our roots,” Cocca Jr. said. “Center city Allentown needs a local cheesesteak name in the new downtown, whether it’s Vince’s or someone else.”

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Jennifer Glose

Jennifer Glose

Reporter Jennifer Glose covers health care, Berks County and other topics. She can be reached at jenniferg@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 111. Follow her on Twitter @jenniferg_LVB and read her blog, “Networking,” at http://www.lvb.com/section/networking-blog.

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