The coney dog — with its meaty, bean-less chili sauce, beef frank with a snap, and smidgen of mustard and onions has cemented a Greek version of the American Dream for more than a century and remains one of the Motor City’s most iconic gifts to the food world right up there with the square pizza and the Detroit-style botana.
However, the title of unsung hero in the coney island sub-genre of iconic diner fare belongs to the Hani, a sandwich assembled using a warm, fluffy piece of pita bread, strips of crispy fried chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, melted slices of Swiss and cheddar cheese, and a mayonnaise blend. It’s like Detroit’s version of Chicago’s debate over deep dish versus tavern-style. Sure, you gotta take out-of-town guests to American or Lafayette Coney Island for a chili dog. But for those in the know who want to avoid the sloppiness of a coney dog (and maybe the heartburn), the Hani is the locals-only alternative.
First invented in 1985 by a line cook named Hani at the National Coney Island at Mack and Seven Mile, the Hani has gone on to sweep the menus of countless local competitors to the point that, according to the company’s current president (and a third-generation coney man) Tom Giftos, its originators have had to take legal action to cease its unauthorized production and sale. In a move to set the record straight once and for all who’s behind the beloved sandwich, the regional chain launched Pop’s Hani Shop in May 2023 at 32538 Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak.
“We would first run it as a special just at that store and then we put it on our menu at that store, and then we put it across the chain, and it just kind of evolved into its own thing and its own brand,” Giftos tells Eater of the of Hani’s evolution. “Over the years, it’s just grown to a big percentage of our menu [sales] almost to where it’s rivaling the hot dog and the coney dog.”
That the Hani has grown into an underreported, but formidable companion to the legendary coney was almost an accident.
Giftos says that chef Hani would frequently prepare improvised omelets for guests. The first iteration of the Hani was more like a quesadilla, laid out flat on the griddle, then topped with a slice of cheese, and a strip of chicken tenderloin.
“I think it happens in a lot of different restaurants where for staff, you just kind of experiment with the ingredients that are in front of you and put different twists on things,” says Giftos. “I don’t know why this one stuck other than, you know, the melting of the cheese with the crispness of the chicken, it was more like a comfort food item and it really kind of hit the spot.”
That riffing on the grill worked well with the late-night bar crowd. “It just was one of those things where you’re out drinking and you end up wanting some food late at night, and yeah, a lot of places have burgers and fries and whatever else but we had that sandwich and I think it really kind of pulls the younger crowd in,” Giftos says. “At night from like 11 p.m. till 3 in the morning, that’s what we were making [them]. We were making breakfast for people and we were making Hani for people and that’s where it really got a foothold.”
Before long, employees or vendors of National began reporting Hani sightings at other restaurants and bars. Eventually, Giftos says, the company had to obtain a U.S. trademark to stop competitors from using the word “Hani.”
The opening of Pop’s is a long time coming. A U.S. Trademark search shows several word marks listed with the name Hani in it with National Coney Island listed as the applicant, including House of Hani, Hani House, and Hani Hut, just to name a few. As the concept of the restaurant began to take shape, Giftos says one idea was to prepare the sandwiches in similar fashion as a Chipotle assembly line. That was scrapped.
What they came up with was a space where that inventive grill could shine. In addition to serving the original sandwich, Pop’s also plays with house-made sauces for its spicy Southwest and another that uses black cherry-flavored pop from Michigan-based Brix Soda Company for its barbecue sauce. There’s also a variety of smash burgers, and several familiar Greek American dishes like salads, gyros, and chicken lemon rice soup on the menu. To drink, Brix and Vernor’s Ginger Ale are both prominently displayed on the fountain.
Giftos tells Eater that more Pop’s locations could be on the horizon. The Royal Oak restaurant, formerly occupied by the shuttered Kalamata Greek Grill, is serving as a kind of testing ground for how future Hani shops could operate.
So far, he says, people are responding well to Pop’s. In its first weeks in business, Pop’s has already made regulars out of folks.
“We saw people that had been in like five and six times, like a lot of people,” says Giftos. “That’s a pretty darn good sign when you see the same faces in a two-week period coming in five or six times. It tells you you’re doing something right, and that the food’s on point. So if we can deliver on that front, and it’s working, and we can tweak it to make it even better, then yeah, I totally think a second one would be would be wanted and doable.”