How the Coney Dog Became Detroit's Signature Food
New York's Coney Island is renowned for its hot dog, even hosting the annual eating contest devoted to stuffing as many Nathan's as possible into your stomach.
But at the turn of the century, a wave of immigrants brought those same dogs to Detroit, and they've since become one of the most beloved dishes in Motor City. "Coney dogs are Detroit's signature food," says Katherine Yung, who co-wrote the new book Coney Detroit with Joe Grimm.
In the book, she and Grimm trace the Coney dog's history in Detroit back to the early 1900s, when Greek immigrants traveled through New York on their way west. On their stop at Ellis Island, Grimm and Yung hypothesize, these immigrants may have visited Coney Island, where Nathan Handwerker was already serving up his famous hot dogs.
Courtesy of Keith Burgess/Coney Detroit
The dogs might have remained a local oddity if not for William "Bill" and Constantine "Gust" Keros. They opened American Coney Island in Detroit in 1919, serving up signature hot dogs in the heart of downtown. It was good timing: Detroit was booming with auto workers in need of a grab-and-go lunch.
Eventually, Bill and Gust had a falling out, and in 1936, Bill decided to open Lafayette Coney next door, giving birth to a fierce rivalry that's persisted through the years. Today, there are about 500 Coneys in and around Detroit. In an interview, Yung opens up about the hot dog's history and its place in Detroit.
Where did Coney Dogs come from?
There's a mystery that's still out there, but we were able to determine that the first hot dog concoctions were created by the Greeks and Macedonians who immigrated to Detroit. Legend has it that these immigrants got the idea because they passed through New York and Ellis Island and Coney Island. They came here and kind of used the name to make this different hot dog.
These immigrants really didn't speak any or very little English. A lot of them were fleeing Greece and Macedonia. Making and selling Coney dogs was something they could do. A family would start the restaurant and then send for other family members.
How did they become so popular in Detroit?
There were two brothers who started out together. They really helped play an influential role in spreading Coney dogs through other parts of Michigan. One of the sons brought Coney Islands into shopping malls. Over the years, they went from being very urban, downtown focused toward branching out into the suburbs. They were able to evolve with the migration to the suburbs. It's how they've stayed so popular.
Now, they're a staple. They've really taken off for a lot of reasons. It's cheap, inexpensive tasty food that people can eat really quickly. They also suit Detroit's working class, blue collar culture. They're really all over. I've see them at wedding receptions, holiday parties. I ran across a woman who went to a funeral that served Coney dogs. It's for every day occasions but also for special occasions.
What makes a Coney dog a Coney dog?
There's a particular Detroit style that revolves around bean-less chili. There's also a natural casing to the dog, it has that snap when you bite into it. Then it's covered with mustard and onions.
There are differences between vendors, and they can be quite noticeable. It all boils down to the chili. Some Coney vendors make it from scratch, others can buy National chili, produced by one of the owners of the big chains. They buy that and mix in their own spices. That can make a big difference.
Are there loyalists to one brand or another?
People do have loyalties. There's an intense one between American Coney Island versus Lafayette Coney Island. People in the suburbs have their own favorites. You develop habits, and tell people, "this is my Coney place." We try to tell people in Michigan that they should branch out and try all the different ones. They're missing out if they keep going to the same places.