As hungry customers file into Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island during a busy Friday lunch rush, Haley Sroufe smiles as she deftly handles the grill. Dozens of hot dogs are sizzling in front of her as curious onlookers peer inside the window on Main Street. “People think we’re insane how we do this, but this is normal for us, and we love it!”
Behind the packed counter, workers shout ‘We need more onions’ and offer a heads up about ‘hot chili’. Sroufe calls the action “organized chaos”. Jimmy Todoran knows the drill well. He started working at Coney Island in 1986. “It’s a lot of moving parts and knowing each other’s moves. It’s pretty tight quarters back here.” Todoran laughs and compares the communication skills of his staff with that of an emergency room crew. A master of navigating the madness is a guy simply known as “Tiny”. Few know his real name is actually Dennis Parker. Tiny has been a fixture serving satisfied customers for the past 43 years. The nickname was pegged on him 50 years ago by his football coach at North Side High School. It stuck. The regulars are glad it did.
Family is everything here. The business recently celebrated it’s 107th birthday and has been been operated by the same family since 1916. The late Russ Choka was the driving force behind the restaurant for over 50 years after taking over for his father-in-law. Today, his daughter Kathy Choka, and Todoran eschew corporate titles and consider themselves “caretakers of the business.”
The nostalgic atmosphere attracts generations of families to share their childhood memories. 62-year-old Joe Aguirre fondly remembers enjoying the chili and hot dogs as a kid. When he became a father, he brought his kids. Now they bring their kids. Aguirre’s daughter Jennifer Stephens moved to Tennessee, but makes it a point to share the tradition when she visits. “With everything changing these days, this place has remained the same” she says. “It’s exactly as I remember it.” Her 13-year-old son Jason says it’s “really cool” because he gets to relive what his parents and grandparents did at his age. Tom O’Reilly is in his 90’s. He remembers eating coney dogs when street cars were the norm downtown. He says he takes a short drive every week to eat at his favorite spot. His favorite order is a coney with everything on it, a bottle of coke and a piece of pie.
Todoran says it’s important for customers to walk away with lasting memories of the way it used to be. “I want the food to taste the same. I want their experience to be the same, positive experience. We strive very hard to give them that.” Tiny knows it’s working because he sees the same faces over and over again. “People that lived here move away and this is the first place they come when they visit.” As he says that, a family is waiting in line outside to get in. Cris Brueggeman now lives in Boston. She was here visiting her family with her brother Kevin Reinhart who now lives in Georgia. Brueggeman says “I come here first every time because I love it! I take a dozen home and wrap them individually and freeze them so I can enjoy them at home in Massachusets.” Reinhart, wearing a Georgia Bulldogs shirt proclaimed with a smile, “The dogs are the best in the entire country!” It’s a sentiment he tells his friends in the Peach state. It’s a feeling shared by 81-year-old Steve Carpenter. He’s been coming to Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island for at least 75 years. “The hot dogs are one of a kind. This is the only place you can get them, and they are fantastic!”
Don’t be confused by the seeming simplicity of the product. The restaurant has trademarked “Our buns are steamed”. Todoran says science is behind the magnificent taste. “Everything about the hot dog compliments. You want a warm, steamed bun, a grilled frank, and a stripe of mustard. The frank can’t be too overpowering because you want the sauce to be the star. We have a hand chopped onion that we chop fresh every day, seven days a week. You put it all together and it’s perfect!”
It’s why Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island is Positively Fort Wayne! For more information about the history of the iconic restaurant, click here.