Detroiters love a good rivalry, and what better rivalry than the debate over who does the coney dog best: American, Lafayette, National, Leo’s, Duly’s, Senate, Kerby, Zorba’s, Onassis, Nicky D’s, Grandy’s. Coneys are available in every suburb, just about every zip code within city limits. And for Detroiters traveling or snowbirding, there are even Detroit-style coneys in Florida, Las Vegas, Chicago, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Some, like American Coney Island, are patriotically decorated, giving an all-American vibe. Some are primarily drive-thrus where guests grab their food through plexiglass. Some are open 24/7 and serve the late-night bar crowd from spacious booths, while others cater to the early-morning breakfast crowds who sit down at swivel stools for eggs and toast from a modest lunch counter. Some spots also sell gyros, Greek salads, chicken lemon rice soup, and have servers trained to present flaming plates of saganaki, while others keep their menus simple with just dogs, loosies, and chili cheese fries.
No matter which coney island you’ve pledged your allegiance to, these regional chains and stand-alones can all trace their roots to Kyparissia, a coastal town in Greece’s Peloponnese region about an hour’s drive from the better-known archaeological site of Olympia. It’s an area known for its cured meats, seafood, olives, and an abundance of fresh produce — certainly not for hot dogs slathered in all-meat chili, diced onions, and mustard. So how did so many relatives of Kyparissians seem to end up in the coney island hot dog-slinging business in Detroit?
Detroit in the 1910s was a city booming with folks from across the globe all vying for factory jobs in the then-budding automotive industry. The city became so inundated that workers couldn’t find proper housing; they would rent rooms by the hour between shifts, says Joe Grimm, a journalism professor at Michigan State University and co-author of Coney Detroit.
But those coveted factory jobs were hard to come by for some recent arrivals. The first wave of Greek immigrants began showing up in the region just before the turn of the 20th century. Grimm tells Eater that with their long, hard-to-pronounce names — at least in the opinion of less recently arrived European immigrant communities — and limited English, many in the Greek American community were kept off of the assembly lines. This forced Greek Detroiters to get creative. “So some of them decided to put themselves to work by opening these restaurants that had a flattop grill,” says Grimm. The coney island diner was born.
Likely inspired by the coney dog that came out of Coney Island in Brooklyn, just a short distance from Ellis Island where many of the new arrivals first landed, these restaurants only sold a couple of items: coney dogs and drinks. At first, not even fries were available as most spots weren’t equipped with deep fryers. And they weren’t called “coney islands.” They were just simple places usually consisting of a long lunch counter with stools where workers could grab a quick handheld meal and be off to the factory, not unlike those horse-drawn carts and sit-down diners taking shape across the Eastern seaboard around the same period. The setup was simple enough and the population of Detroit had skyrocketed so rapidly — from about 285,000 in 1900 to just under 1 million by 1920 — that there was a big market for quick, affordable food options to feed the droves of factory workers.
Among the first innovators in this new and growing business was the Keros family, specifically, brothers William “Bill” and Constantine “Gust” Keros. The pair tried their hands at a few different jobs: selling popcorn from a horse-drawn wagon on Belle Isle; that didn’t last long. A stint cleaning hats from the corner of Lafayette and Michigan Avenue. Then they struck gold after pivoting and transforming the downtown, flat iron-shaped space into a restaurant.
“It was so busy, they opened another restaurant right next door,” says Grimm. And then they opened a third location, right there on the same block. The setup was mutually beneficial to the three eateries. If one spot ran out of buns, for example, someone could walk next door and pick up more from their neighbor. The restaurants were open 24/7 — none of the establishments even bothered to put locks on the doors.
It wasn’t long before others caught on to this efficient little hub for business.
“More and more Greek immigrants kept coming to Detroit with instructions to check in with the Keros brothers in Detroit to get a job,” says Grimm. “They went there and they learned the business... They would go to work making and selling coney dogs and then eventually a lot of them would spin off and start their own places.”
It’s a story not unlike the origin of the thousands of paleterias across the U.S. and Mexico that don the name La Michoacana that can trace their lineage to the small village in Michoacan where the ubiquitous paleta was born. Or the many Bangladeshi restaurants in metro Detroit that serve “Indian” cuisine. Or the dozens of taquerias that dot southwest Detroit and Downriver whose owners all come from the many small towns of the highlands of Jalisco.
“Back then, when people came over from overseas to set up a new life in America and they needed work — I mean, where are you going to go to? You’re gonna go to people that you know and you hear through the grapevine where there might be work opportunities,” says Tom Giftos, president of National Coney Island. “When those Greek immigrants came over, from Lafayette and American, naturally, you know, a lot of Greeks started working for them.”
Giftos should know. His grandfather got his start in the United States working at Lafayette Coney Island. His father, James Giftos, followed that path when he bought into the National Chili Company, which supplied coney sauce to the many of the mom-and-pop shops in the region that didn’t have their own recipes. James Giftos went on to found National Coney Island in 1965 at Macomb Mall.
Tom Giftos says that the chili company was originally founded around 1930, among a wave of other chili-specific businesses. Coney sauce distribution was just one sector of the then-growing coney supply chain. A flock of suppliers — many founded by other European immigrants — cropped up to provide the buns, hot dogs, and other ingredients necessary for proper coney island operations.
The now-defunct Brown’s Bun Baking Company in southwest Detroit, along with Bluebird (also shuttered), at one point supplied buns to nearly all of the coney islands in metro Detroit. The bulk of the wieners used in metro Detroit continue to come from Dearborn Sausage, founded in 1946 by a Hungarian named Victor Kosch. Up in Flint, Michigan, the German-owned Koegel Meats is the primary source of hot dogs for Genesee County coneys. According to Grimm, Koegel is also the supplier for Detroit-based chain Leo’s Coney Island.
Speaking of Leo’s, brothers Pete and Leo Stassinopoulos founded their first restaurant, called Southfield Coney, in 1972, eventually expanding with more coneys, and moving to the name Leo’s Coney Island with the 1988 opening of its location in Troy, according to Coney Detroit. The pair learned the ropes of the business from their cousins, who owned the chain Kerby’s Koney Island (named after the Keros brothers and the nephews of Bill and Gust Keros).
About that rivalry though.
Grace Keros, of American Coney Island, says it’s just media-made hoopla.
“Are there differences? And do we take pride in our own? Yes, [but] it’s a very healthy rivalry,” Keros says. “I’m going to stick up for my own thing, just as they do. It’s a pride thing, and that’s normal. That’s just how it is. But no one’s bashing anybody else’s [restaurants].”
Both Grace Keros and Tom Giftos, who each head their respective family businesses, continue to visit Kyparissia regularly. Giftos mentions a cousin of his from Kyparissia who came to Michigan in the early 2000s for an extended visit to provide care for some elderly relatives.
“The first word he learned was ‘Hani’ [the sandwich invented by National Coney Island in the 1980s], because I brought him some sandwiches and he tried them,” says Giftos. “The next time I would go to visit him, I would say to him in Greek, ‘I’m coming from the restaurant, can I bring anything?’ He would say, ‘Hani, Hani.’ I mean, that was like one of the first English words that he learned.”
While you’re not likely to find a single coney island in Kyparissia, there’s still an appreciation for what their relatives pulled off in the Motor City.
“I think that in this town, there’s an awareness that all these families went over there and started these businesses and they were successful,” says Giftos.