Coney Island Hot Dog – History and Variations

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Introduction

A Coney Island Hot Dog (or Coney Dog or Coney) is a beef or beef and pork German or European-style Vienna or Frankfurter having a lamb or sheep casing, placed in a long, narrow bun split lengthwise, topped with a savory meat sauce made of seasoned ground beef or beef heart or a combination of the two, the sauce likely being of Greek or Macedonian origin, with other toppings as well such as yellow mustard, white or yellow onion, and occasionally shredded cheese. The Coney is often offered as part of a menu of dishes of Greek origin and classic American ‘diner’ dishes, mostly at restaurants identified as “Coney Island”s. It is largely a phenomenon related to immigration from Greece and the Macedonian region to the United States in the early 20th century.

A coney dog, with its Greek or Macedonian origins, is not to be confused with a chili dog, a more generic ground beef-based chili-topped hot dog.

Origin

Coney Island variations around the U.S. were developed, apparently independently, by Greek or Macedonian immigrants in the early 1900s, many fleeing the Balkan wars, who entered the US through Ellis Island in New York City. Family stories of the development of the dishes often included anecdotes about visits to Coney Island. [“History“. Red Hots Coney Island]

In 1913 the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce in New York had banned the use of the term “hot dog” on restaurant signs on Coney Island, an action prompted by concerns about visitors taking the term literally and assuming there was dog meat in the sausage. [Mariani, John F., The Dictionary of American Food and Drink, 1985, ISBN 0899191991, 978-0899191997] Because of this action by the Chamber of Commerce, immigrants passing through the area didn’t know the sausage in a bun by the American moniker “hot dog.” Instead, the handheld food would have been known to immigrants as a “coney island.”

Regional and Local Varieties

Indiana

Ft. Wayne’s Famous Coney Island Wiener Stand was opened in 1914 by three now-unknown Macedonian immigrants. Vasil Eschoff, another Macedonian immigrant, purchased an interest from one of the original owners in 1916. Eschoff’s descendants have operated the restaurant since. [“History page“, Ft. Wayne’s Famous Coney Island] The ground beef-based coney sauce at Ft. Wayne’s Famous Coney Island Wiener Stand has the flavor and consistency of a mild peppered savory pork sausage, reflecting its Macedonian heritage. The small hot dog is grilled on a flattop, placed in a steamed bun, yellow mustard applied, then a few teaspoonfuls of the savory chili sauce are added which is then topped with chopped yellow onion.

Michigan

The Coney Island developed in Michigan is a natural-casing beef or beef and pork European-style Wiener Würstchen (Vienna sausage) of German origin, topped with a beef- or beef heart-based sauce, one or two stripes of yellow mustard and diced or chopped onions. The variety is a fixture in Flint [Atkinson, Scott (March 27, 2012), “Michigan Coney Dog Project: Koegel’s and sauce key to a Flint coney“, Flint Journal], Detroit, Jackson, Kalamazoo, and southeastern Michigan. [Trop, Jaclyn (February 13, 2010). “Chicago’s new import: Coney islands“. Detroit News] The longest continuously operated Coney Island (in the same location) is in Kalamazoo (1915). [Liberty, John, “Kalamazoo’s Coney Island Hot Dog puts historic recipe in mix for Michigan’s best coney“, mlive.com, Kalamazoo Gazette]

In a Metro Times interview with John Koegel published on June 27, 2007, Mr. Koegel specifically stated “Beef hearts are in our Koegel Detroit-style chili. National and Leo’s Coney Island and Kerby’s Coney Island use beef-heart products, though not ours.” [Broder, Jeff, The Daily Grind Metro Times, June 27, 2007] In another Metro Times article by Michael Jackman dated February 18, 2014, Grace Keros, owner of the American Coney Island downtown and Canton locations, stated she owns the Detroit Chili Co. [Jackman, Michael, American Coney Island owner sets us straight Metro Times, February 19, 2014] The Detroit Chili Co. sauce is available at retail foodservice and grocery stores, and the first ingredient listed is beef heart, meaning both American and Lafayette use the meat in their sauces. Of course there is another Michigan style of Coney Dog in Jackson, developed by George Todoroff in 1914. In a piece by MLive’s Brad Flory on June 4, 2014, Richard Todoroff stated beef heart wasn’t in the original recipe. However, he followed this by saying “Coney restaurants in Jackson began using ground heart during World War II because it was easier to obtain than regular ground beef.” [Flory, Brad. “Feeding Jackson’s astonishing appetite for ground beef heart“. MLive.com]

Detroit style

In Detroit historically many Greek and Macedonian immigrants operated Coney islands, or restaurants serving Detroit Coney dogs. The Detroit-style Coney was developed by someone at either of the side-by-side American or Lafayette Coney Islands (there are too many versions of the story to sort out) in about 1917. [Skid, Nathan. “The real story behind Detroit’s coney wars“. Crain’s Detroit Business] Greek immigrants established the Coney chains Kerby’s Koney Island, Leo’s Coney Island, and National Coney Island during the 1960s and early 1970s. All three chains sell some Greek food items with Coney dogs. National has most of its restaurants on the east side of the city, and Kerby’s and Leo’s have the bulk of their restaurants on the west side of the Detroit area. By 2012 many Albanians began operating Detroit-style Coney Islands as well. [Yung, Katherine and Grimm, Joe. “Coney Detroit”. Wayne State University Press, 2012. ISBN 081433718X, 9780814337189]

Flint style

Flint style is characterized by a dry hot dog topping made with a base of ground beef heart, which is ground to a consistency of fine-ground beef. [Florine, Bob; Davison, Matt; Jaeger, Sally, “Two To Go: A Short History of Flint’s Coney Island Restaurants”, 2007, Genesee County Historical Society] Some assert that in order to be an “authentic” Flint coney, the hot dog must be a Koegel coney and the sauce by Angelo’s, which opened in 1949. [Atkinson, Scott (March 27, 2012), “Michigan Coney Dog Project: Koegel’s and sauce key to a Flint coney“, Flint Journal] [Atkinson, Scott (March 22, 2012). “Flint-style coneys researched and defined in new book, “Coney Detroit”“. MLive.com] However, the sauce was originally developed by a Macedonian in 1924, Simion P. (Sam) Brayan, for his Flint’s Original Coney Island restaurant. Brayan was the one who contracted with Koegel Meat Company to make the coney they still make today, also contracting with Abbott’s Meat to provide the fine-grind beef heart sauce base. Abbott’s still makes Brayan’s 1924 sauce base available to restaurants through the Koegel Meat Company. Restaurants then add chopped onions sautéed in beef tallow, along with their own spice mix and other ingredients, to Abbott’s sauce base to make their sauce. [Florine, Bob; Davison, Matt; Jaeger, Sally, “Two To Go: A Short History of Flint’s Coney Island Restaurants”, 2007, Genesee County Historical Society]

Popular folklore perpetuates a myth that a Flint coney sauce recipe containing ground beef and ground hot dogs is the “original” Flint Coney sauce recipe. Variations on this story include either that a relative of the storyteller knew or worked with the former owner of Flint’s Original and received the recipe from them, [“Gram’s Flint Coney Island Sauce“, Food.com] or that the wife of the owner of Flint’s Original allowed the publication of the recipe in the Flint Journal after his death. [“Flint Coney Island Hot Dog Sauce“, Food.com] Ron Krueger, longtime food writer of the Flint Journal, included it in a collection of recipes from the newspaper but without a cited source, unlike the rest of the recipes in the collection. [Kreuger, Ron (2000), Scoops, The Flint Journal, p. 21, ISBN 0-9649832-4-9] When asked about this Mr. Krueger replied, “That recipe appeared in The Journal several times over the years. [I don’t] think I ever saw it in the context of a story or ever saw any attribution. It always included the word ‘original’ in the title, but anybody who knows anything knows otherwise.” [“FAQ“, Flint Coney Resource Site] As to the second myth of Brayan’s wife later allowing the publication of the recipe, Velicia Brayan died in 1976, while Simion Brayan lived until the age of 100 and died in 1990. The actual source of this recipe appears to be an earlier Flint Journal Food Editor, Joy Gallagher, who included the recipe in her column of May 23, 1978. In that column she stated she had included the recipe in an even earlier column. Her apparent source was “a woman who said she was the wife of a chef at the original Coney Island, and that she copied the recipe from his personal recipe book.” Gallagher stated “I believe her”. However, Gallagher also wrote, “I’m not making any claims”. In the same column she also included a second recipe that used beef heart, which she wrote “came to me recently from a reader who swears it is the sauce served at Angelo’s.” The folklore has mixed the supposed sources of the two recipes in this column from Gallagher, with people claiming the ground hot dog recipe is reportedly from Angelo’s. [“Angelo’s Coney Island Sauce“, BigOven.com] In his column published in the Flint Journal on April 18, 1995, Food Editor Ron Krueger reported taking Gallagher’s ground hot dog recipe directly to Angelo’s co-owner Tom V. Branoff, who refuted the recipe line-by-line. Gallagher’s pre-1978 column is still being researched. [“Q: Where did the Flint Coney sauce recipe that includes ground hot dogs originate?“, Flint Coney Resource Site]

Jackson style

Jackson style uses a topping of either ground beef or ground beef heart, onions and spices. The sauce is traditionally a thick hearty one whether ground beef or ground beef heart is used. This meat sauce is applied on a quality hotdog in a steamed bun and then topped with diced or chopped onions and a stripe of mustard. The Todoroffs’ restaurants were some of the earlier locations for Jackson coneys beginning in 1914. However, those locations are now closed. The company currently manufactures and distribute their coney sauce for retail purchase at supermarkets or other restaurants. [“Todoroff’s Original Coney Island“, Jackson, MI] There are several other coney restaurants in the area, most notably Jackson Coney Island and Virginia Coney Island, both of which are located on East Michigan Avenue in front of the train station near where the original Todoroff’s restaurant was located. These restaurants all use a blend of onion and spices similar to Todoroff’s but use ground beef heart instead of ground beef for the coney sauce. The Jackson style was late to the usage of beef heart in the sauce, using ground beef prior to converting to ground beef heart in the early 1940s. [Flory, Brad. “Feeding Jackson’s astonishing appetite for ground beef heart“. MLive.com] Jackson takes their coneys very seriously. Each year Jackson Magazine or the Jackson Citizen Patriot have a best coney contest voted on by residents for all the restaurants in the area. [“Our Famous Coney Island Chili Sauce“, todoroffs.com]

Kalamazoo style

Coney Island Kalamazoo was founded in 1915, and is the longest continuously operated Coney Island in the state. Their coney island is made up of a topping made from their own recipe served on a Koegel’s Skinless Frankfurter. Koegel’s wasn’t founded until 1916, and it’s unknown which hot dog Coney Island Kalamazoo used prior to the Skinless Frankfurter’s development. [Liberty, John, “Kalamazoo’s Coney Island Hot Dog puts historic recipe in mix for Michigan’s best coney“, mlive.com, Kalamazoo Gazette] [“Coney Island Kalamazoo“]

Michigan Suppliers

The following meatpackers provide Coney dogs and European-style Frankfurter Würstel (Vienna sausage) to restaurants and consumers in Michigan:

  • Butcher Boy Meats / Alexander & Hornung
  • Dearborn Sausage/National Brand
  • Koegel Meat Company
  • Winter’s Sausage

Many Coney Island restaurants make their own sauces from scratch. However, the different styles of sauces are also available from the following meatpackers:

  • Abbott’s Meat: Flint style
  • Dearborn Sausage/National Brand: Detroit style (National Coney Island Hot Dog Chili Sauce)
  • Detroit Chili Company (owned by American Coney Island): Detroit style [“American Coney Island owner sets us straight“, Metro Times]
  • Koegel Meat Company: Detroit (Koegel’s Hot Dog Chili Sauce) & Flint styles (sourced from Abbott’s Meat)
  • Todoroff’s Foods: Jackson style
Minnesota

Greek immigrant Gus Saites opened his Original Coney Island in Duluth in 1921. The hot dog used is the Vienna Beef from Chicago, which was topped with the restaurant’s own coney sauce, with options of mustard, onion, and for a small fee, cheese. The Superior Street location also offered sport peppers as a topping. The decor included a copy of their 1959 menu showing coney islands were 25 cents each. Original Coney Island closed in 2017.

Coney Island Deluxe had opened in Duluth in 1928, and is still open today.

North Dakota

In Grand Forks, North Dakota, the three location Red Pepper taco chain (including one in Fargo, North Dakota) offer their Coney Dogg (spelled with two ‘g’s). The hot dog is relatively large at 4.0 ounces (110 g). It’s topped with a ground beef-based topping known as a “mexi meat” which, unlike most coney island toppings, is a thick and mildly sweet Mexican chili. It’s then finished with a pile of finely-shredded Colby cheese. [Red Pepper, Grand Forks, ND]

Ohio

In Cincinnati, a “coney” is a hot dog topped with Cincinnati chili, usually with mustard and chopped onions. A “cheese coney” adds a final topping of shredded cheddar cheese. The dish was developed by Macedonian immigrants Tom and John Kardjieff, founders of Empress Chili, in 1922. The coney topping is also used as a topping for spaghetti, a dish called a “two-way” or chili spaghetti. As of 2013 there were over 250 “chili parlors” in Cincinnati serving coneys. The two largest chains today are Skyline Chili and Gold Star Chili. Arguably the most famous is Camp Washington Chili. [Stern, Michael; Stern, Jane (2009). 500 Things to Eat Before it’s Too Late: and the Very Best Places to Eat Them, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-547-05907-5]

Oklahoma

Coneys are on restaurant menus throughout Tulsa and were originally created there by Greek immigrants. [Cauthron, Matt. “One Hot Dog: How Tulsa Became a Coney Town“] Oklahoma coneys are small hot dogs on steamed buns with a spicy-sweet dark brown chili sauce, onions, and optional cheese and hot sauce. [Stern, Michael; Stern, Jane (2009). 500 Things to Eat Before it’s Too Late: and the Very Best Places to Eat Them, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-547-05907-5]

Texas

James Coney Island operates a number of locations in the area of Houston, Texas. The company was founded in 1923 by two Greek immigrant brothers, James and Tom Papadakis; the former being the company’s namesake. [History, James Coney Island, Houston, TX] The town of Grand Prairie in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex also has a Michigan-style Coney Island restaurant, D-Town Coney Island, which serves both the Detroit and Flint-style coneys. [“Menu“. D-Town Coney Island]

Publications

  • Florine, Bob; Davison, Matt; Jaeger, Sally, “Two To Go: A Short History of Flint’s Coney Island Restaurants”, 2007, Genesee County Historical Society
  • Yung, Katherine and Grimm, Joe. “Coney Detroit”. Wayne State University Press, 2012. ISBN 081433718X, 9780814337189

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