FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — While Chicago may have its pizza, and Memphis boasts its barbeque, Fort Wayne has its own unique food that’s called the Summit City home for hundreds of years: the coney dog.
The combination of a steamed bun, hotdog, chopped onion, mustard and the namesake coney sauce has several restaurants in Fort Wayne dedicated to its making.
But why does the dog have so much staying power in Fort Wayne?
If you venture south to Muncie, Indiana, there isn’t a place with ‘Coney’ in its name (and WANE 15 could only find the dog on a menu at the historic Cammack Station), and it’s the same story when heading in any direction.
Unless you hit Detroit or Cincinnati (although many coney dog purists will point out that the Cincinnati version has cheese, and is thus not a real coney dog) you won’t find many places that specialize in coney dogs.
Local food historian Laura Weston said that the history and people of Fort Wayne play a big role in the dog’s persistence.
“Going back to the German roots, that has a lot to do with it,” Weston said.
She also pointed out that the original coney dog served at Coney Island in Fort Wayne was created by Macedonian immigrants.
When you combine the German love of sausages and the Macedonian flair found in the coney sauce, you end up with the coney dog being a hit.
Hundreds of years and hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Coney Dogs later, Summit City’s love affair continues through several restaurants.
Coney Island is undoubtedly where the journey of coney dogs in Fort Wayne started.
Founded in 1914, the location may actually have a claim as inventor of the dog.
The commonly held belief is that the dog originates in Detroit; however, according to the Detroit Historical Society, the coney dog also made its first appearance in the mitten state in 1914.
And that is the sort of history you can expect at Coney Island.
“It’s a Fort Wayne cornerstone,” said Kathy Choka, co-owner and bearer of the last name Choka, one of the original families that operated the location since 1916.
Choka and Jimmy Todoran run the location together and continue their unchanging persona.
“It’s funny, a lot around has changed, but Coney Island has not changed,” Todoran said.
While the history is vast at Coney Island, and explaining it is better left to their website, there are a few things curious connoisseurs of coney dogs should know.
Much of the furniture is either original or offers a contemporary look from the early days of Coney Island.
Tables, chairs, and even a refrigerator from 1928 help continue the legacy of one of Fort Wayne’s cornerstones.
If Coney Island is the king of coney dogs, then Mister Coney feels as if they have a claim to the throne.
“My grandfather and Russ Choka’s father-in-law were the original partners (of Coney Island),” said Tom Litchin, the owner of Mr. Coney.
And Litchin says that through his grandfather, Mr. Coney has been serving coney dogs with the original sauce recipe since 1966.
“The sauce is what makes us different, and it is the original recipe,” Litchin said.
The Litchins were bought out of Coney Island in 2013, according to the Coney Island website, and according to Litchin, it was due to the death of his father’s partner.
Longtime employee Jimmy Todoran bought out Mr. Litchin in 2013, vowing to keep Coney Island the same as Russ Choka did for over 53 years.Coney Island’s Website
When asked about the amount of coney dog locations in Fort Wayne, Lithcin said that it’s a little competitive, but he continues to carry on the legacy of his grandfather.
“There’s only one thing for me, and it’s living up to that man back there, my grandfather,” Litchin said while pointing to a black and white photo of his grandfather. “He was one of the original ones, and I just want to do it as well as he did.”
The full history of Mr. Coney can be found on their website.
Coney Dog Cafe
Coney Cafe has called a number of locations home over the past 22 years, now residing in New Haven and in Fort Wayne on Lima Road.
“If it’s not a little messy, it’s probably not that good,” said Marty Compton, owner of Coney Dog Cafe.
And his dogs live up to that motto, paying respect to the original coney dog’s mess of onions and sauce while still trying to find room to innovate.
“They (Coney Island) have to get the bulk of the credit for putting Fort Wayne on the map for the coney dog,” Compton said. “I think our sauce is a little tangier, it has a little more zip to it.”
And beyond the coney dog, Compton said that Coney Dog Cafe makes space for hotdog lovers of all condiments.
“It doesn’t mean there isn’t space for other types of hotdogs people enjoy, like a Chicago Dog, which we do a whole variety of different hotdogs here,” Compton said. “We have a whole gamut of hot dogs here.”
The drive-thru changed the way food was consumed in the 1940’s, and one restaurant in Fort Wayne has married the idea with coney dogs.
“We sell thousands of hot dogs every week,” said Akber Meruani, owner of Coney Express.
For more than 25 years, Meruani has owned and operated two locations in Fort Wayne, and he said the secret to prolonged success has been doing everything by hand.
“The product we have is top-notch,” Meruani said. “We make everything, we cook our own meats. It’s not something that comes out of a can.”
Meruani thinks that the coney dog would be a huge hit beyond the borders of Fort Wayne if people would just give the dog a try.
“If the people start tasting it, they will love it,” Meruani said.
East State Coney
East State Coney has been open since 2009, but new owners have changed the way the location does coney dogs.
“We wanted to switch it up a bit, not only is our coney sauce really good, it’s really good on an all-beef hotdog,” said Jeanna Pearson, owner and operator of East State Coney.
Since taking over in September 2021, Pearson and her husband have only served all-beef hot dogs, making Pearson call her version the “gourmet of the conies.”
And the dog isn’t the only difference.
“Most of the people that come here that really like our conies or prefer our conies are from Michigan and Detroit, so they’re familiar with the original coney dog,” Pearson said. “So I think ours is a little more familiar to that original coney taste.”
The Stand is an interesting addition to this list, being the only location that doesn’t have the name ‘coney’ in its name.
However, don’t let that fool you– the seasonal shop takes pride in its coney dog.
“Ours is a little more meatier, we put a little more beef on the dogs,” said Mike Palmer, one of the owners of The Stand.
Their meaty sauce sets their coneys apart, but so does their selection.
The Stand boasts dozens of dogs, from the classic coney to a kung fu dog topped with various condiments.
“I just started messing around with it and they all turned out pretty well,” said Ryan Palmer, general manager of The Stand. “There isn’t one I don’t like otherwise it wouldn’t be on the menu.”
With all of the coney dogs Fort Wayne has to offer, it’s no surprise that it’s one of the Summit City’s favorite foods.
To determine the “true” king of coney dogs in the Fort Wayne area, WANE 15 has a poll attached below where people can vote to determine who holds the top spot for the best coney dog around.