Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is shaped like a hand so that it can hold a Coney dog properly. There can be no other explanation. This is the epicenter of the Coney nation. While you might find one or two Coney Island diners in other states, you will find hundreds—no exaggeration—in this one mitten-shaped peninsula.
Attribute this to the Keros family of Greece, its great sense of timing and work ethic. In the 1920s, Henry Ford’s five-dollar workday filled Detroit with workers who were hungry and on the prowl for a hot meal. Lunch counters, primarily chop suey joints and Coney Islands like the one started by brothers Bill and Gust Keros, filled the void.
Coneys survived; chop suey joints did not. The Keroses, finding their Coney Island was being overrun, opened a second next door. Then there were three: American, Lafayette and, for a while, the State. (American and Lafayette thrive today.) These became an unofficial college of Coney dog knowledge, training Greeks and other immigrants in the trade. Former employees fanned out from downtown, opening more Coney Islands.
When Detroit’s population began following freeways to suburbs plowed up from farmlands, Bill’s oldest son Tony, gave the Coney concept a second wind, so to speak. He opened Coneys in the new shopping centers that ringed Detroit. One branch of the family started a chain called Kerby’s, short for Keros brothers. Stassinopoulos brothers Pete and Leo, schooled on Keros flattop grills after arriving from Greece, started the biggest chain, with more than 30 restaurants. National Coney Island grew out of a chili business by the same name.
Other places, many launched independently from the Keroses, thrived in Coney-loving Michigan. Coney ways vary in Flint, Jackson, Port Huron and Kalamazoo. Here is your traditional Detroit-style Coney Island, from the bottom up:
- steamed bun
- natural casing beef and pork hot dog
- beanless (very important) chili seasoned with secret ingredients, including onions and garlic
- chopped white onions (Vidalia or Spanish)
- yellow salad mustard (the brand is not important but please, no Grey Poupon)
A drier “meat topping” rather than chili. Most Detroit dogs come from Dearborn Sausage. In Flint, it’s hometown Koegel’s natural casing dogs.
Mama Vicki’s “over the top” chili covers everything.
At Red Hots, Richard Harlan puts the mustard UNDER the dog so that it doesn’t interfere with his chili.
Saginaw and Bay City Coneys use “tomato product” that makes the sauce red.
The closer you get to Chicago, the more likely you are to see pickles with coneys and other kinds of dogs. This is no doubt the influence of the Chicago dog.
HOW TO EAT A CONEY DOG
We don’t mean to be snobs, but there is an etiquette to eating a Coney and we want you to devour it like a pro:
Do not be dainty and cut up the Coney with a knife, except in cases of extreme chili overrun. When in Rome, do as the Romans do; when in a state shaped like a hand, eat with them. We go through a lot of napkins.
If you order a Coney and then ask them to leave off chili, onions or mustard, that is not a Coney. We call that a hot dog.
Do not complain if the dog is hard to bite. The point of a natural casing hot dog is to give it snap. Savor the snap.
Manners, people. Do not lick the plate clean. Save a little bun to wipe up that last bit of chili, or use a fork.
Never, under any circumstances, put ketchup on a Coney. You WILL be shamed.
This article originally appeared in the 2017 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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