To many, Coney Island is one of America’s most historic boardwalk getaways in Brooklyn, New York, home to a famous amusement park and the original Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand. But in Michigan, a coney isn’t a theme park, it’s a meal, specifically a hot dog topped with chili, then topped with mustard and chopped onions. And the roots of this tasty dish go back to the beginning of the 20th century.
In a special summer episode of his TODAY All Day series “Family Style,” Al Roker explores the history of Detroit’s famous coney dogs. While the name may sound familiar to many New Yorkers, the dish’s origins are actually Greek.
In the late 19th century, Greece faced a massive economic crisis, sparking a wave of global migration. By 1920, it is estimated that more than 400,000 Greeks had immigrated to the US, according to the Hellenic American Project. During this time, most European immigrants passed through New York before moving on to other parts of the country.
“They came in, mostly, through Ellis Island, which is close to Coney Island,” historian and “Coney Island Detroit” co-author Joe Grimm told TODAY. “When they got here, we think what happened was they saw people on Coney Island in New York eating hotdogs and they said, ‘Oh, we’re going to have to get jobs here. This is what Americans eat.’”
Borrowing the name of the famous boardwalk, Greek immigrants moved west and at some point decided to add a touch of their native country to distinctively American food. That twist was a chili sauce made with Greek spices.
“Now the true origins, like who invented the Coney dog, (are) lost to history,” Grimm added. “This is not the kind of thing that people see as historical when it happens. Newspapers didn’t go without a story saying someone invented the Coney Island hot dog. It just happened in many places around the same time, mostly by Greek immigrants.”
Rabbit hotdog is to Detroit what deep dish pizza is to Chicago or bagels and lox are to New York City. In the Motor City, the oldest family-owned rabbit spot is American Coney Island, and its history mirrors that of the many immigrants who came to Detroit at the turn of the century.
American Coney Island, now run by Grace Keros, a third-generation co-owner, is still producing rabbit dogs 105 years after the restaurant’s founding. Grace is the granddaughter of Constantine “Gust” Keros, a Greek immigrant who traveled to the United States in search of work in the automotive industry. After failing to find work manufacturing automobiles, Gust and his brother Bill opened one of Detroit’s first rabbit shops in the early 20th century. A family breakup caused the brothers to drift apart, leading to side-by-side rabbit operations and a long-lasting rivalry at the restaurant. Lafayette Coney Island opened right next door and today Detroiters swear allegiance to either American or Lafayette, but only American remains owned by the Keros family (and wholly family-owned) today. Grace’s father, Chuck Keros, inherited the business from Gust, but Grace has now run the family business for 30 years.
“The rabbit craze in Detroit really should be attributed to the Keros family. They weren’t the first on the scene, not only were they, but they’ve been here longer than anyone,” Grimm said, “and they’ve created, by family or business, so many Coney Island restaurants that we estimate more than 100. Coney Islands can trace its lineage right back to that flat grill.”
Today, there are dozens of these diners throughout metro Detroit serving up some version of a coney dog, as well as Greek dishes like gyros and salads topped with feta, cucumbers and Kalamata olives. But through the years, American has remained a staple in the Detroit community.
“I think about my grandfather and my dad and the things they saw here, from riots to … Tigers winning the World Series, when they were good,” Grace told Al on American. “Such a deep and proud story. I love this city.”
Of course, a great hot dog wouldn’t be complete without a great bun. In Michigan, a bun that’s meaty enough to stand up to rabbit toppings is the Coney Island Steamer, which was developed by another family business: Metropolitan Baking Company. For 45 years, the Kordas family, whose roots also go back to Greece, has been selling specialty breads throughout Detroit and the state. George Kordas, is the third generation owner and president of Metropolitan. His grandfather, George James Kordas, began his career as a Ford car salesman. He later invested the money he earned in his first bakery. What started as a small bakery business is now one of the largest purveyors of rabbit buns in the state.
“The Coney Island Steamed Bun is our iconic…flagship item in the line of buns and rolls,” Kordas told TODAY. The bun is produced using a sponge dough method, which produces a unique flavor and light, fluffy texture.
At first, Metropolitan sold only loaves of bread. Today, the factory produces dozens of items for grocery stores, upscale restaurants, and of course Coney Island diners, including American Coney Island. George credits his father with helping the company grab a larger slice of the bread market in the mid-1980s through automation. The factory now produces more than 25 million rabbit buns each year. That’s in addition to the different bagels, breads, and even gluten-free items in the line.
As the Kordas and Keros families work hard to keep their traditions alive for new generations, another family restaurant hopes to establish a new rabbit habit in the Motor City.
In Detroit’s Brush Park neighborhood, you’ll find CMO, also known as Chili Mustard and Onions. But unlike most diners in town, the rabbit, the sauce, and everything else on the menu is plant-based.