The Origin of the Coney Island Hot Dog Is a Uniquely American Story

They also have very little to do with the New York City amusement park

A Coney dog
A Coney dog Diádoco via WIkicommons

This July 4, as with every July 4 going back to the 1970s, an all-American display of gluttony will feature rubber-stomached competitive eaters once again gorging themselves in the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on Brooklyn’s Coney Island. This year’s gastronomic battle, at the corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues, will honor the 100th anniversary of the founding of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs at the same corner in 1916.

It’s a patriotic event, and not just because it’ll be echoed at holiday barbecues across the country. The hot dog, that quintessential American food, has been associated with Coney Island, America’s most storied amusement resort, since frankfurter first met bun. But Nathan’s century-old triumph of entrepreneurship is only part of the Ellis-Island-meets-Coney-Island story. Thanks to immigrants from Northern and Eastern Europe alike, the name “Coney Island hot dog” means one thing in New York, another in the Midwest and beyond.

Historians disagree on the hot dog’s origin story, but many credit Charles Feltman, a Coney Island pie-wagon vendor, with inventing the fast food, serving hot dachshund sausages in milk rolls as early as 1867. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council says Feltman opened a hot dog stand on Coney Island in 1871 and sold 3,684 sausages that year. Wieners took Feltman far. By the turn of the century, he’d gone upscale, with Feltman’s German Gardens, a huge complex of restaurants and beer gardens on Surf Avenue that employed 1,200 waiters. Though seafood became Feltman’s specialty, he still had seven grills dedicated to hot dogs, which he sold in the 1910s for ten cents apiece.

Nathan Handwerker, a Polish immigrant with a day job as a restaurant delivery boy, worked Sunday afternoons at Feltman’s German Gardens, slicing rolls. According to Handwerker’s 1974 New York Times obituary, Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor, who worked as singing waiters on Coney Island before they found fame, encouraged Handwerker to strike out from Feltman’s and sell hot dogs for a nickel instead of a dime. In 1916, he did just that, opening a small hot-dog stand at Surf and Stillwell with his wife, Ida. The subway’s extension to Coney Island in 1920 brought countless New Yorkers to his stand. “Society people, politicians, actors and sportsmen flocked to Nathan’s,” the obituary recalled, “brushing shoulders with truck drivers, laborers, and housewives.” Franklin D. Roosevelt famously served Nathan’s hot dogs at a 1936 lawn party for Britain’s George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (mother of the now-reigning Queen Elizabeth II).

Meanwhile, outside New York, the Coney Island name evokes an entirely different hot-dog tradition. In Michigan, “Coney Island” doesn’t mean an amusement park, but one of an estimated 500 diners in the Metro Detroit area alone  that serve Greek food and “Coney dogs” -- hot dogs smothered in chili or ground beef, plus mustard and onions. There are plenty more elsewhere in Michigan, across the Midwest, and beyond.

The Coney dog was spread across the eastern U.S. by various Greek and Macedonian immigrants in the 1900s and 1910s. The restaurateurs were part of the great wave of Greek migration to the U.S. – 343,000 people between 1900 and 1919 – who fled the economic desolation caused by Greece’s 1893 bankruptcy and a crash in the price of currants, then Greece’s main export. “Many of them passed through New York’s Ellis Island and heard about or visited Coney Island, later borrowing this name for their hot dogs, according to one legend,” wrote Katherine Yung and Joe Grimm in their 2012 book Coney Detroit.

Lafayette And American Coney Islands
Lafayette and American Coney Islands both sell the chili-topped Coney dogs. Benlmoyer via WIkicommons

In that era, Americans associated New York’s Coney Island with hot dog authenticity. Back then, the name “hot dog” was out of favor; amid the concern about meat-packing standards inspired by Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle, it still carried a hint of suggestion that the cheap sausages were made of dog meat. Handwerker called then “red hots,” others “Coney Island hots.”

Naming the inventor of the Coney dog – the first person to slather chili or sprinkle ground beef on a sausage – is a fool’s errand. Various Coney Island restaurants in Michigan and Indiana vie for the title, claiming founding dates in the mid-1910s, but they don’t appear in city directories from the era until the 1920s. Many Greeks and Macedonians likely hit upon the idea of dressing hot dogs in variations on saltsa kima, their homeland’s spicy tomato-based meat sauce. “The Coney Island’s formidable beef topping with a sweet-hot twang has a marked Greek accent,” wrote Jane and Michael Stern in their 2009 book 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late.

It’s easy, though, to locate the Coney dog’s ground zero, the Midwest’s version of Surf and Stillwell: the corner of West Lafayette Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in Detroit.

There, Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island have carried on a sibling rivalry for 80 years. For generations of Detroiters, their chili-topped weiners have been the ultimate urban-diner experience, the workingman’s lunch and the late-night craving after last call. Brothers William “Bill” Keros and Constantine “Gust” Keros, former sheepherders from the Greek village of Dara, founded the two diners to serve hot dogs to autoworkers. Each restaurant boasts it opened first, with American Coney staking a claim to a 1917 founding, Lafayette Coney to 1914. But city directories tell a different story than family and business oral history: the Coney Detroit authors say the brothers opened Lafayette Coney together in 1923, and Gust Keros opened American Coney in 1936 after a falling-out with his brother.

Outside metropolitan Detroit, Coney dog variations abound. In Michigan cities such as Flint, Jackson and Kalamazoo, their topping isn’t chili, but a sauce that’s mostly ground beef, often including beef hearts. A few Coney Island restaurants still exist outside Michigan, from the Coney Island Grill in St. Petersburg, Florida, to George’s Coney Island in Worcester, Massachusetts. Cincinnati’s version of Coney sauce is a chili, invented in 1922 by Macedonian immigrants Tom and John Kiradjieff as their own spiced version of saltsa kima. That iteration doesn't just go on hot dogs-- it's also served with spaghetti or as a stand-alone chili. 

Closer to New York City, the names change. Rhode Islanders call their Greek-immigrant chili-dog diners “New York System” restaurants, and they serve “hot wieners” – never hot dogs. “They are made in a systemic way,” wrote the Sterns in 500 Things to Eat, “by lining up all the dogs in buns and dressing them assembly-line-style.” But in far upstate New York, around Plattsburgh, they’re called Michigans, probably thanks to 1920s Detroit expatriates Eula and Garth Otis. From there, they smuggled themselves across the Canadian border, where the Montreal-area hot-dog chain Resto Lafleur offers a steamed or grilled “hot-dog Michigan” and poutine with “la sauce Michigan.”

Today, Nathan’s is an international chain, with more than 300 restaurants and stands, mostly on the East Coast. It’s added a chili dog to its menu. In another example of hazy hot-dog lore, Nathan’s apocryphally claims it’s about to host its 100th hot-dog-eating contest – actually a creation of carnival-barker-style bunkum that started in the 1970s. Meanwhile, Coney Island blogger and historian Michael Quinn is reviving the Feltman’s red-hots brand, which went extinct with Feltman’s restaurant in 1954. He’s teamed up with a sausage-maker to make a red hot in homage to the original, which he’s selling at pop-up events. In a history-minded revenge, Quinn sells hot dogs for half of Nathan’s price.

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