Detroit Coney Island Hot Dogs

The hidden history of a hometown staple.

When you start a business as I have with 4Thought Studios, you give up a great deal, most notably, quality time with friends. Your friends are replaced by your business partners and colleagues. I have spent nearly all of my leisure time over the course of the past year with one or both of my partners either working, eating, drinking, or some combination of the three.

One evening, Brad Dunn(my CTO) and I were driving back to the office from dinner. As is common throughout the Midwest we happened to drive past a Coney Island restaurant. This one had a picture of its namesake dish, the Coney dog, on the street sign.

“How do you think that these Detroit restaurants came up with the name Coney Island hot dog,” I asked him.

“From what I know,” he answered, “it’s named after Coney Island which is in New York.”

“Yeah. I get that, but isn’t it from Detroit?”

“Yeah.”

“Then why isn’t it called a Detroit dog, or a D-dog or something like that? I mean, you have these possible options to call a hot dog in Detroit but instead they decided to settle on something from a totally different area. It just doesn’t seem right.”

“Yeah, you’re right, it is a bit strange…”

“My theory is that they decided to name it Coney Island because of how the hot dog looks.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that the hot dog is like an island and the bun is like the water. Here let me draw a diagram on this napkin.” (See figure 1)

Figure 1: Jenna’s sketch of a Coney Island hot dog

Brad was speechless. I had blown his mind with my cleverness. As interesting (and hilarious) as this idea was to him, it did not change his thinking about the delectable hot dog. While he recognized that my thinking was clever, Brad was certain that that could not be the reason why our hometown hot dog was called a Coney. Doubtful that he had any idea what he was talking about, I decided to investigate. Seeing as this is a Detroit staple, I started with the Detroit Historical Society.

Many people think that the Coney dog, also called the Coney Island hot dog, got its start on Coney Island, NY where the hot dog was created. In actuality, this popular food got its start in Michigan, although the exact location is still disputed. Three locations in Michigan all claim to be the birthplace of Coney dogs: American Coney Island in Detroit, Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit and Todoroff’s Original Coney Island in Jackson.
In 1917, Gust Keros opened American Coney Island. A few years later Keros’s brother opened Lafayette Coney Island next door. Both of these Detroit Coney Islands are incredibly popular to this day, where there is an on-going argument over which establishment serves the best Coney dog. The dispute has been featured on several food television shows, including Food Wars and Man v. Food.
A Coney dog is a beef hotdog, topped with an all meat, beanless chili, diced white onions, and yellow mustard. A true Coney dog uses made-in-Michigan products.
~ Detroit Historical Society Webpage

If you were expecting more details there weren’t any. Evidently, the Detroit Historical Society doesn’t share my passion and curiosity in the life-changing knowledge of Coney dogs (they instead focus on chronicling social, economic, and political events in and around the city — you know, the boring, unimportant stuff). That was the entirety of the entry in the society’s online Encyclopedia of Detroit.

So I tried the Smithsonian. It turns out, there is a loose Coney Island (as in the place) connection. Apparently, as Greek and Macedonian immigrants pushed westward from their point of entry in New York City and brought their food traditions with them. Afterward, those that settled in the Midwest, specifically Michigan, brought their chili-smothered hot dogs, named after the place where they had first tasted them.

Something still didn’t make sense to me, so I had to lay everything out. Immigrants came to America and ate hot dogs (originally brought to the United States by German immigrants) on Coney Island (Figure 2),

Figure 2: Immigrants come to America and eat hot dogs

where they were a popular street food.

These new Americans then spread across the country, modifying the hot dogs using their traditional as well as local ingredients, often naming these hot dog varieties after the city and state where they first tried them (Figure 3). Because of this, the Detroit Coney dog, it turns out, is not the only hot dog to bear the name of another city. The story of our delightful Detroit dogs is not unique, but it is a uniquely American one.

Figure 3: American hot dog varieties

I was so engrossed in this story, I did not realize that my island hot dog theory did not come up in any of the sources I read. My theory, it turns out, while still clever, is, I’m sorry to say, false. Brad — 1, Jenna — 0. 4Thought Coneys this Friday on me.