Among the many artwork tributes to Coney Island famous hot dogs on the restaurant’s west wall, is a large framed black and white photograph of the interior taken in the early 1930s. If you study the picture and then glance at the real-life present, you will see almost no difference. The employees’ uniforms and the ceiling fixtures have changed, but, overall, the similarities are striking, from the same stools and tables to the large faced clock on the east wall. And even though the staff now wears a slightly more casual look than the shirt and tie outfit of the 1930s, the eager-to-please attitude is as evident on the faces of today’s crew as seen on those in that 80+ year-old photograph. At the time the picture was taken the restaurant was already an established fixture in Fort Wayne having first appeared on the downtown landscape in 1914. Considering the changes all around it, Coney Island’s continued presence makes it a landmark institution that steadfastly honors its tradition.
Operated by the same family since 1916, Coney Island is one of many Fort Wayne eateries established by Macedonians and maintained by their descendents. Today Kathy Choka & Jim Todoran take on the role of caretakers; corporate titles in this egalitarian environment seem ridiculously out of place. Kathy’s late father Russ (88) was the moving force of the Coney Island for over 50 years and worked every day right up to the last week of his life. It was Kathy’s grandfather, Vasil Eschoff who purchased an interest in the restaurant in 1916, from one of the three Greek immigrants who opened Coney Island in 1914. Mr. Eshcoff, an immigrant himself, came to the United States without his family; after 14 years he brought them to his new country—a common pattern among Macedonians at the time –venturing off alone, finding a job, and eventually bringing the family to the new country after having established a home. Jake Geroff and Mr. Gileff purchased the other two shares in 1924. Mr. Gileff sold his share to Mr. Litchin in the late 1920′s. Mr. Geroff was bought out in the early 1940s.
In 1958 Russ Choka, Vasil Eshcoff’s son-in-law, began working on his behalf at Coney Island, taking the helm in 1961. By then the restaurant had already weathered decades of local and national ups and downs, retaining stability through it all. Though Choka was not inclined to be effusively responsive to interviewers, he was known by customers and friends to be “among the nicest guys you’d ever meet.” His presence was an important part of the celebrated atmosphere of the place. Other elements that contribute to the now 100 year tradition for this uncontrived environment are the servers who take orders without writing them down, kid-favorite stools that spin, no-nonsense signs on the wall proclaiming “no loafing,” a roll top desk and steel filing cabinets near the counter, hand chopping 75 pounds of onions daily, and open stored cartons of Cokes “in the little bottle”. The kitchen behind the dining area is impossibly small, but the folks at Coney make it work. The effect of these unusual components renders the restaurant a one-of-a-kind place—inspiring many to photograph the sign outside.
100 years gives a restaurant considerable opportunity to accumulate anecdotes about customers, both famous and fervent. Coney Island has more than its share of both. Notables including numerous Governors, Senators and Congressmen, actor Drake Hogaston, director David Anspaugh, the late president of Macedonia, Boris Traykovski and many many others have placed orders inside the small place. The CEO of the Ohio Art Company, the late Mr. Kilgallon, marketer of the enduring toy Etch A Sketch would send his jet to Fort Wayne just to pick up Coney’s dogs; his family still make stops when in town. Mickey Mantle stopped by once and left a $18 tip for three glasses of water! One patron, still a regular today, made his first stop at Coney Island when his parents stopped there on the way home from the hospital after his birth.
The crew at Coney Island is a major part of the attraction. Servers appear immediately to take orders. In a gentlemanly practice that defies current gender neutrality, female customers are served soft drinks with straws. Most of the crew already know what regular customers want before they order. Mention a name to the staff—even someone who isn’t a regular, and most will know how that person likes his dogs. There’s a short-hand ordering lingo used by most customers that speeds along the already lightening fast process of getting food at Coney Island. “Three and a bottle” is three dogs with everything and a coke. “Three without” is three dogs with chili sauce and no onions.
Employees, like customers, find the stream of changing faces that make their way to Coney Island to be an intriguing slice of life. The Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night manager Rajib Jainagerker enjoys meeting the eclectic cast of diners. A product process engineer for BAE Systems Controls by day, Jainagerker started working at the restaurant in 1971 to help pay for college. Forty-three years later he now views the part time job as a form of stress relief. The variety of patrons fascinates him. “All kinds of people come here,” he says. Whether the restaurant is extremely busy or calm, he treats customers with unfailing courtesy. Events like the blizzard of 1978 demonstrate the constancy of the restaurant and employees like Jainagerker. That’s when a radio announcement proclaimed that only Coney Island was open downtown, and the restaurant was packed with hungry snow removal workers that Jainagerker and one other server kept fed.
The Choka family is well represented among the staff with many family members currently employed. “It’s a right of passage to work here,” Kathy says. The long-term plan had been for Russ’s son Mike to take over leadership responsibilities from his father. He and Russ had worked together at Coney so very closely for years and his succession seemed like an ordained decision. But Mike was afflicted with pancreatic cancer in 1992 and died in June of the next year. “It was the most devastating event that ever happened to this place,” Kathy says. Mike is memorialized by a dedication plaque and picture on the east wall of the restaurant given to the Choka family by Mike’s best friend and Komet Hockey team owner/General Manager Dave Franke. Two of Mike’s sons Andy and Matt worked at the restaurant during their school years and through college.
Kathy, who speaks of Coney Island in reverent tones, considered the idea of stepping in to replace Mike. A former trust officer with Fort Wayne National Bank, the idea of working there herself had never previously occurred to her. Initially her father was resistant to the notion of his daughter’s involvement in Coney Island. “He didn’t want me to get my hands dirty,” Kathy says. “He only said yes because he thought I’d hate it.” But her reaction was quite the opposite. She calls it the best job she’s ever had. Today she and new partner Jim Todoran look after the operational details and kibitzes with the customers. She contends that “Coney Island has a life of its own, and no one runs it.” Her philosophical bent provides a perfect counterpoint to the laid-back Coney Island environment.
Coney Island offers refuge and sustenance for all and is clearly proud of its lack of class-consciousness. But the restaurant has demonstrated a fondness for one group throughout its history—the working class, especially factory employees. Coney Island opens at 8 a.m. This time was deliberately set long ago to accommodate shift workers on their way home. When Fort Wayne was in its industrial heyday, workers responded enthusiastically by making early mornings an often-crowded event at the restaurant. Some companies would buy as many as three hundred hot dogs as a weekly treat for their employees.
Notable as the atmosphere, tradition and service are, most people love Coney’s for the hot dogs. Close to 1500 to two thousand are sold each day, except when Santa makes his annual appearance on the nearby PNC Bank’s north façade. The numbers of dog consumption rise enormously that time of year as families engage in the tradition of viewing the holiday display followed by a Christmas at Coney experience. The hot dogs seem to hit the spot for local tastes, and, of course, they’re proud to claim that at Coney Island “our buns are steamed.” The famous chili sauce is still made according to the original recipe devised by the first owners in 1913. Hamburgers are also available on the menu and are quickly becoming a “hit”!
Fort Wayne’s downtown has changed considerably in the long history of Coney Island. The neighborhood has had its share of shoeshine stands, rough bars, candy stores and, at one time, at least ten or twelve other hot dog stands. The current, much-studied downtown environment is office oriented and relatively quiet. Plans to develop & construct new facilities and consider traffic patterns may bring new interest and investment to the central business district. In contrast, people can expect Coney Island to retain the essential qualities that have made it so popular. The increasing number of families that come to the restaurant together these days is setting the stage for more generations to enjoy the nostalgic feel and tasty hot dogs.
Original Article by Nancy Venderley revised & updated by Kathy Choka