Originally aired on April 14, 2021
Whether you’re team Lafeyette or team American, we can all agree Detroit makes the best Coney dogs. And they should— the famous Motor City meal was founded here more than a century ago in the early 1900s. But what’s the story underneath all that meat sauce, mustard and onions? Let’s take a look back at Detroit’s Coney dog history.
From Detroit Public TV’s “Detroit Remember When: Made in the Motor City” documentary, host Erik Smith gets the full scoop on Detroit’s Coney dog history with Joe Grimm, author of “Coney Detroit,” Grace Keros, a 3rd generation owner of American Coney Island, Ken Brown of WJR Radio, and Dearborn Sausage’s Don Kosch, who share the history of the Coney Island name, it’s rise to fame and why you’ll be craving one after watching this clip.
Erik Smith: The iconic brands of Detroit. Now, wait a minute, this is Highland Park, so why start here? Well, the city of Highland Park is in the city of Detroit, after all, and this is where Henry Ford built his iconic Model T, the very first affordable car for the working man. And the guys working there, of course, had to eat something. So, when the Coney Island hot dog came along, boy, it made a real splash. And they made them right here, Red Hots Coney Island.
The Model T plant was just up the street, of course, so lunchtime? (Laughter) This was the perfect recipe. Good bun, great dog, a layer of mustard, and then the coney sauce, and some onions, oh yeah. OK, if you haven’t heard about Red Hots, I know you know about those two Coney’s right there at Michigan and Lafayette, The Lafayette and The American, iconic Motor City cuisine.
Grace Keros, Owner, American Coney Island: Iconic. And I don’t use that word very often because some people overuse it, but it really is.
Erik Smith: Grace Keros is the third-generation owner of American Coney Island. Grace’s grandfather, Gus, actually started it all down on Michigan Avenue back in 1917.
Grace Keros: He came from a place called Dada in Greece, little Village out in the mountains. Landed at Ellis Island, heard there were jobs in Detroit, so he made his way to Detroit, but in fact couldn’t get anything. He thought, well, I’ll start something on my own and right there on that same corner that we’re at right now, he started a little pushcart selling hot dogs, and shining shoes, and cleaning hats, and popcorn.
Erik Smith: Soon, Gus’s brother Bill came over and joined him and they opened up a storefront and called it “American Coney Island”.
Joe Grimm, Author, Coney Detroit: It was a very simple lunch. There didn’t need to be a menu. You could get a hotdog, chips, something to drink, that was about it.
Erik Smith: It wasn’t long before Brother Bill opened Lafayette Coney Island next door.
Joe Grimm: These Coney Islands are running in the fastest growing city in the world.
Erik Smith: But why are the restaurants called Coney Island? Chili Dogs too?
Grace Keros: Coney Island in New York is an amusement park; it’s not a food.
Erik Smith: In New York, coney Island was known for Luna Park, those bathing beauties, and hot dogs. What Gus Keros saw, was an opportunity knocking.
Grace Keros: When he saw that amusement park, it made such a huge impact on him, that he was like, you know what? I’m in America, because he’s in America and was so grateful and thankful for that, American Coney Island, and hence the name.
Erik Smith: In Brooklyn, ehh they got their dogs and sauerkraut, but not Coney’s. No, no, not like they make them here.
Joe Grimm: That sauce is a very much like a Greek spaghetti sauce, if you will. And so, we think they took a little bit of grease, put it on a little bit of America and sold it.
Erik Smith: Pure Coney’s can be found in other parts of the country if you want to look hard enough these days. There are many across Michigan, but nothing like, well, the ones here in Metro Detroit. Here, it’s tradition and we have our own Coney decorum.
Grace Keros: As a matter of fact, even today, when people ask for ketchup on a hot dog, I give them the bottle. So you put it on, we don’t put ketchup on a Coney dog.
Joe Grimm: No ketchup goes on a Coney. The ketchup is only there for the fries.
Ken Brown, WJR Radio: And it’s always the dog, forget about the mustard and the chili, the dog makes the Coney.
Grace Keros: You don’t fry a hot dog, you don’t steam a hot dog, you don’t boil a hot dog.
Ken Brown: Does it have skin on it? You know, does it break apart? The ones with skin and casings on it, that’s the Coney Island.
Grace Keros: It’s a flat top stainless-steel grill, and you just put them right on the grill. Start cooking them until they start browning and popping.
Erik Smith: American, Lafayette, and other Coney Islands get their hot dogs, believe it or not, from the same place, Dearborn Sausage.
Don Kosch, Owner, Dearborn Sausage: We’re a niche company, and that’s exactly what’s, that’s what we’re there for. You know, we do specialty things.
Erik Smith: The maker may be the same, but the hot dog recipes are different for the different Coney Islands.
Don Kosch: Everybody seems to have a particular taste profile, so you have to stick to what the customers are used to.
Erik Smith: After the dog, of course, comes the sauce.
Joe Grimm: These are trade secrets. We ask everybody for the recipe; nobody will give you the recipe.
Erik Smith: Judith Martin, the famed Miss Manners, gave it her best to follow the first rule of Coney Island etiquette.
Grace Keros: You don’t need a Coney with a knife and a fork.
Joe Grimm: Judith Martin was an expert on manners, but she’s no expert on Coneys.
Grace Keros: You’re supposed to pick it up with your hands and eat it.
Joe Grimm: And I use it over and under a grip, and you come in like this on one end.
Ken Brown: But whatever falls, falls.
Joe Grimm: But if it’s kind of messy, you got to kind of go all the way.
Ken Brown: Three bites, and that’s it.
Grace Keros: You know a good coney by how many napkins you use.
Erik Smith: Coney Island history now includes Coney Sprawl. When some Detroiters headed to the burbs, well, they had to bring their Coney’s right along with them.
Joe Grimm: One of the sons, Tony Keros, decided he would leave the city, and he started opening Coneys in the shopping centers.
Grace Keros: Pretty much every Coney Island and every person who started those, stemmed from my grandfather, because as soon as he started making money, then he would bring somebody over. That’s what we do, you know, we’re Greek, family is so important.
Joe Grimm: The whole Leo’s chain, the biggest chain in the country, is descended by business from the Keros family. The Kerby’s chain is related by blood to the Keros family. There are hundreds of Coney Islands that you could trace directly to that corner of Michigan and Lafayette.
Grace Keros: There’s tons of us. There’s a whole mess of us, absolutely.
Erik Smith: All over in southwest Detroit, there’s still another classic Coney Island that dates back to the 1920s.
Benny Napoleon, Wayne County Sheriff: The real person who understands Coney’s, now, this is the difference between somebody who really understands, go to Duly’s over on Vernor.
Erik Smith: Now, Duly wasn’t Greek. In fact, he came from Albania. He passed away in the 1960s, but Duly’s place still makes Coney’s.
Benny Napoleon: Now I love American, and I love Lafayette, but I spent many a days at Duly’s, which is really like a small place.
Joe Grimm: Food critics, like the old-fashioned kind of food critics who write for newspapers and magazines, look down on Detroit’s signature food, because they think it’s not sophisticated enough. It makes us look like what we are, a town where men and women work for a living.
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