Among the many artwork tributes to Coney Island's 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, including the same stools and tables. The same McCray cooler from the late 20's is still in operation. 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 & Jimmy Todoran take on the role of caretakers; corporate titles in this egalitarian environment seem ridiculously out of place. Russ Choka 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. Vasil Eschoff (Russ's Father In Law) 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 purchased the other shares in 1924. Mr. Litchin purchased an interest in the late 1920’s. Mr. Geroff was bought out in the early 1940s. Long time employee Jimmy Todoran bought out Mr. Litchin in 2013, vowing to keep Coney Island the same as Russ Choka did for over 53 years.
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 Russ 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 over 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 cases of Cokes “in the little bottle” in the corner of the restaurant. The kitchen behind the dining area is impossibly small, but the folks at Coney make it work. All of the locals know that you can still enter through the "secret" kitchen back door to this day. The effect of these unusual components renders the restaurant a one-of-a-kind place—inspiring so many to photograph the sign outside.
The crew at Coney Island is a major part of the attraction. Servers appear immediately to take orders. 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 mustard, coney 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. Jimmy Todoran started working at Coney Island at just 15 years old. Jimmy's late father worked at Coney Island not long before Jimmy was born. Russ Choka was like a second father to Jimmy and he worked along side of Russ, literally 7 days a week.
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. 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. Russ worked right up to the last week of his life and was laid to rest in December of 2011. A memorialized plaque and picture of Russ was placed next to his son, Mike.
Russ was the face of Coney Island for so many years. Jimmy Todoran, who started in the kitchen in 1986, was able to secure a loan and purchase 50% of the restaurant from the Litchin family to keep it business as usual. Kathy Choka still owns the other 50%, which was passed down from her late father and grandfather. Today, you'll still find Jimmy working 7 days a week, overseeing the operation, chatting with customers and still serving dogs during the busier lunch rushes.
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 now but for many years the doors opened at 6 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.
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, Vice President Mike Pence, actor Drake Hogaston, comedian Jay Leno, musician Huey Lewis, actress Shelly Long (a Fort Wayne native), 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 coneys dogs; his family still make stops when in town. Racing great Ed Carpenter has Fort Wayne's Famous Coney Dogs brought down to Indianapolis the week of the 500. Mickey Mantle stopped by once and left a $18 tip for three glasses of water! Some patrons have even shared how their parents stopped there on the way home from the hospital after birth of their children.
Notable as the atmosphere, tradition and service are, most people love Coney Island for the hot dogs. Close to two thousand are sold each day, except when the famous Santa display makes his annual appearance on the nearby PNC Bank’s north façade. The number of hot 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 Island 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 coney sauce is still made according to the original recipe devised by the first owners in 1913, and today the spices are still mixed by only Jimmy himself. Hamburgers are also available on the menu and are one of Fort Wayne's best kept secrets!
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 city's current Riverfront development is bringing much excitement and interest back downtown as well. You can expect many new businesses and changes coming, except for at 131 W. Main Street, where it will be business as usual, since 1914.