The Very American Story Behind The Detroit Coney Dog

In the pantheon of quintessential American foods, few top the hot dog. For the last century, the Detroit Coney has reigned as the signature snack of the quintessential midwestern American city for which it’s named. However, most of us outside Michigan have never heard of the delicacy. So what exactly is a Detroit Coney dog?

A Detroit Coney is a grilled hot dog cradled in a steamed bun and topped with a beanless beef chili, chopped onions and mustard. In short, it’s the ultimate cure for whatever ails you (except maybe gout). Like so many other gastronomic treats in this country, we have immigrants to thank for it.

Though some of the details have slipped through the hands of time, most agree the hot dog’s popularity started in Coney Island, Brooklyn, where wagon vendor Charles Feltman began selling the tubes of meat in milk rolls in the mid-nineteenth century. Cut to a few decades later when Feltman had opened a slew of “Feltman’s German Garden” restaurants where he served seafood alongside his main staple and employed a young Polish immigrant named Nathan Handwerker. Handwerker eventually opened his own hot dog haven that today is the nationwide chain still bearing his first name.

While all this was happening Greece declared bankruptcy in 1893, driving over 300,000 Greek and Macedonian immigrants to America in search of a better life. Popular theory states that as they filtered through New York City, they came to understand “Coney Island” to mean an all-encompassing restaurant and they put this into practice when a large portion of them settled in the Detroit area in the early twentieth century. Many came to work in the new auto plants but after encountering prejudice and other obstacles, a number opened up Greek diners under the moniker “Coney Island.”

Greek immigrant Gust Keros had sold hot dogs smothered in chili that’s a version of the Greek staple sauce Saltsa Kima out of a cart in downtown Detroit. In 1917, Keros opened American Coney Island on Lafayette Boulevard and served his special dogs. He soon brought his brother over to America who later opened Lafayette Coney Island next door also selling the specialty. Word spread of the sibling rivalry. To this day, choosing between the two sparks great debate—yet another great gift from the Greeks.