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Owner of Fishtown’s Internet Jackpot Cafe says it’s no gambling house

If there’s one thing Jackpot Internet Cafe co-owner Ron Deritis wants people to know about his not-yet-open Fishtown business, it’s this:

“We’re not an illegal gambling house,” he said, smiling and shaking his head during an interview at the 1802 Frankford Avenue spot, which is very close to the Kensington border.

Two of the store’s walls are lined with stations resembling small, black study carrels. Each has an office-style desk chair, and a silver cup where a drink could fit. Each station has a flat-screen computer.

As the name on the front door implies, patrons will be able to play on-line games, and winners can take their winnings in cash. Click on the Black Jack game and a virtual image of a card table appears. Click on Retro 7’s and digital slot wheels pop up, accompanied by 1970s-style funk music.

But Deritis says there are key differences between the games people will play on his screens and the ones they might play at SugarHouse or the Borgata:

-The business is an Internet Cafe. Customers will pay for computer time. Whether playing Vegas Nights or playing Words With Friends on Facebook, it’s $1 for every 8 minutes. Every customer gets a pin and an account, and their computer time never expires.

-Losers only forfeit the fee for their time on-line. 

-Winners win less than a dollar per spin, which can either be applied for more computer time or taken in cash. Exception: there is a cumulative jackpot that builds each month, based on the number of people who played that month, and someone could win several hundred dollars. Winners will want cash for that, Deritis said. “That’s a lot of computer time.”

-The results are predetermined. Even the card games cannot be won or lost with skill or lack of it, Deritis said.  If  you don’t want to watch the wheels go, you can hit the “quick reveal” button and find out the result immediately.

“It is not a game of chance,” Deritis said. “It’s like when you go to McDonalds and you play Monopoly,” he said – a reference to the cardboard game pieces that are peeled apart to reveal a winner.

Not everyone sees it that way. Rep. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny and vice-chairman of the House Gaming Oversight Committee, introduced legislation in October that would make such cafes illegal. It passed the House, and is in committee in the Senate.

Vulakovich spokeswoman Alyson Horne said in a recent interview  that  a few similar cafes have popped up around the state. “This is a loophole in the law,” she said, and Vulakovich wants to “nip it in the bud.”

Deritis said he doesn’t know how other cafes work, but in his business model, the games are “just for fun.”

His business will offer many other services to customers, he said. In addition to time on the internet, customers will have access to high-end software that would come in handy for projects, but costs too much for most home-users to by. The store will provide “office” services, such as color copying and the sending and receiving of faxes. Digital photos will be printed onto photo paper or burned to disk. And for anyone who doesn’t know how to download photos, Deritis says he’ll do it for them – something he thinks some of the neighborhood’s elderly residents will like.

Deritis’ business partner, Stephen Leahan,  plans to offer social networking classes – classes to teach people how to use Facebook, Twitter and the like.

There will be couches, televisions, coffee and pastry, Deritis said. And a computer geek to fix customer’s broken computers.

Deritis is starting the business because his last venture, at the same location, did not work out. It was a mortgage modification business, he said. Things were fine until laws were passed that prohibited such companies from collecting a fee up-front. Prior to the law change, customers whose mortgages he couldn’t get modifications for got their money back, Deritis said. Afterward, “I would spend 20 man-hours getting a modification for someone, and then they wouldn’t pay me.”

That business closed after three months, but he still had two years on the lease, so Deritis, 37, thought he’d open an internet cafe.

He decided to add the on-line gaming aspect after talking to a friend who has such a business in Florida, and he’s doing “OK,” he said.

Deritis is not so computer savvy, actually – that’s his partner’s end of the business. But he joked that “anything where I can sit inside, watch TV, and drink coffee” is pretty good.

Before opening the mortgage modification business, Deritis  said he “worked at a gas station pumping gas for 15 years” at 66th and Essington, and working outside in the cold weather started to get to him.

Deritis doesn’t have a Facebook page, and he asked that PlanPhilly not put his face on the internet, either. That’s why you can hear him, but don’t see him, in the video.

Deritis hopes Jackpot Cafe will open in a week or so. He’s waiting for equipment to come in, he said.  His window signs alone caused a lot of buzzing among Fishtown and New Kensington residents and community leaders.

Fishtown Neighbors Zoning Committee Chair Matt Karp said no one was really certain what the place would be like. “We’re waiting until it opens,”  he said.

Central Delaware Advocacy Group Chairman and Northern Liberties Neighbors Association President Matt Ruben told CDAG members Thursday the organization, which advocates for riverfront communities,  might want to keep an eye on the cafe, too.

Co-owner Ron Deritis talks about his business, which he hopes will soon open on Frankford Avenue. He asked not to be on camera.

New Kensington Community Development Corporation Commercial Corridor Manager Henry Pyatt talked to Deritis about his store when decals on the front promised cash prizes and the windows were frosted.

At Pyatt’s request, Deritis scraped the frosted film from the windows so people can see in and out. “it took 15 hours to scrape that off,” Deritis said.  The old decals will be replaced with smaller, round ones. temporary paper signs were up when PlanPhilly visited.

Deritis has also agreed to limit his hours to 10 am to 7 pm, and to keep out anyone younger than 21.
He says anyone worried that the business will harm the neighborhood in some way should not worry. He wouldn’t do anything that would do that. “I’m a neighbor, too,” he said. “And I like this neighborhood.”

Reach the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

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