While in Fort Wayne late last year, I was talking with one of the sales guys at Sweetwater, a large pro music equipment and instrument dealer who we do business with, about unique places to eat around Fort Wayne. He was telling me of a little hot dog shop in downtown Fort Wayne that had been open for nearly 100 years - Coney Island Wiener Stand. He raved about the chili dogs at the place. Since I love a good chili dog, I made a note of it. On a recent trip to the area to meet with a potential new dealer, I stopped at Coney Island and had lunch.
This history of Coney Island dates back to 1913 when it first opened its doors (some accounts have it opening in 1914). A large contingent of Greek Macedonian immigrants had come to Fort Wayne to find a better life in the early 1900's. Many of them opened restaurants in the area. Thanks to the 1904 Lousiana Purchase Exposition, commonly known as the St. Louis World's Fair, the wiener on a bun was suddenly one of the most popular items for Americans to eat. Three of those immigrants, Harry Dorikis, James Samaras and Stilos Papas came up with the idea to open a wiener grill in downtown Fort Wayne.
Three years later, one of the three orginal owners sold his portion of the business to Vasil Eschoff, a Macedonian immigrant who came to the United States without his family. Vasil Eschoff worked at the restaurant for 14 years before he brought his family to the United States. I understand that was a common practice among Greek Macedonians to come to America alone, then send for their family once they got established during the early 20th century.
The remaining two original owners eventually sold their interest in Coney Island to Jack Geroff and Russell Litchin and moved back to Greece. Eschoff and Litchin eventually bought out Geroff and continued to work in the restaurant each day over the next 30 plus years.
In the late 50's, failing health forced Vasil Eschoff out of the business. His son-in-law, Russ Choka (pictured at right), also a son of Macedonian immigrants, took over Eschoff's portion of Coney Island. Choka had married Eschoff's daughter, Helen, a dozen years prior. Two years later, Russell Litchin left the business and turned his portion over to his son, Chris.
Russ Choka worked at Coney Island every day, seven days a week, for the next 40+ years. There were stories of how he would open the restaurant in blizzards just because he had no reason not to be there. Choka was the longtime face of Coney Island and his son, Michael, came into the business at a young age to help out. Cancer took Michael's life in 1993 at the age of 42 and his sister, Kathy, and their brother, Ron, stepped in to help out. Russ Choka was said to have a gruff exterior, but had a heart of gold. He mentored a number of young kids during the years he worked behind the 16 seat counter at Coney Island. Kathy Choka said that her dad was the only father figure that many of the Coney Island employees had in their lives.
Sadly, in December of last year, Russ Choka was climbing the stairs at his house to go to bed one Friday evening and his heart gave out. "This is the way he would want to go," Kathy Choka told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette after her father's death. "He didn't suffer."
Kathy Choka took over her father's part of the business and continues the tradition of Coney Island today. "It's all about the continuity," Kathy Choka told the local newspaper. "The product is not going to change."
The hot dogs at Coney Island are grilled on a flat grill located by the front window that looks out onto West Main Street in downtown Fort Wayne (see map). Between 1500 and 2000 hot dogs are cooked on the grill on a nearly daily basis at Coney Island. They steam the buns at Coney Island and the bun steamer is just behind a glass partition next to the counter where there's a food preparation area.
The restaurant, itself, is in a long narrow building with tables on one wall opposite the counter. Old pictures of Fort Wayne from years ago along with some whimsical signage adorn the walls. The stools at the counter look like they are the original ones from when the place first opened years ago. Even there is a front door to the place, a number of people use the backdoor entrance to go through the small kitchen in the back to the dining area of the restaurant. It's one of those things that only the locals know it's all right to do.
The menu at Coney Island is pretty basic. Along with hot dogs, you can get burgers, chili, baked beans, homemade pie and chips. Their baked beans must be pretty good as they had those available for carry-out in either a bowl-size or a pint-size container. I took a seat at the counter and knew I was going to get a couple Coney Hot Dogs - basically chili dogs. - with onions.
A young girl came over to greet me and I ordered up two of the Coney Hot Dogs from her - with onions. I was hoping the ginger Altoids I had in my car would kick in before I had to meet with my prospective dealer later in the afternoon. I got a glass of water to go along with the meal.
It didn't take long at all for a couple coney dogs to be placed in front of me. The dogs and buns were long and narrow, not very big at all. Three of these would have been fine with me. It had a layer of their homemade Greek style chili with a ribbon of mustard underneath a copious amount of fresh onions. From the first bite, I liked the taste immensely. They reminded me of my long-time favorite hot dog shop in Sioux City, IA - George's No. 1 Hot Dog Shoppe. The chili had no beans in it and had a wonderful and flavorful spice to it. It wasn't a hot spicy taste, just a nice smooth complimentary taste that went will with the grilled taste of the hot dogs. I do like a good flat-topped grilled hot dog. It's tough to beat a good steamed hot dog, but the taste of the old grill at Coney Island was clearly evident on their hot dogs. The steamed buns gave them a nice light and chewy taste. It was simply an outstanding hot dog.
I did have my meeting at my prospective dealer later in the day and they did agree to carry some of our products. I had to do an event at Sweetwater the next day and I had planned on telling the guy from there about my visit to Coney Island. Shockingly, I found out that he had passed away from leukemia a month before. Now each time I come back to Fort Wayne, I'll have to stop at Coney Island and have a couple three coney dogs in his memory. It's plain to see why they've been in business for nearly 100 years. Coney Island is one of those great little slices of Americana in the heartland of the U.S.