Detroit, MI

The Rise of National Coney Island: A Motor City Legend

Author Ed Anderson
National Coney Island continues to be a popular franchise in MichiganPhoto byNational Coney Island

Chili dogs are as much a part of the Motor City as many other things. No matter what the occasion, having a coney dog is a great way to celebrate. Especially when they are from a Detroit area restaurant. No other city has come close to a recipe that hits all the same notes.

And there is one man to thank for the delicious dogs.

In 1965, James Giftos started a small restaurant inside of Macomb Mall. According to the National Coney Island website, He chose the spot because it was one of the happening places at the time. Families would spend the day there on Saturdays. And teens hung out there during the week in an effort to avoid homework and be with their friends.

But it was still a risk for him. Most restaurants fold after a year. Those that make it face uncertain futures as trends change and once popular foods fade to the background.

There are also rising expenses. Keeping the place clean can be costly, but necessary in order to stay open for business. Likewise, it's imperative that supplies for the employees are bought and maintained.

Then there are the ingredients. A lower quality would drive customers away. However, buying on the higher end can cause an owner to raise prices to a level that will keep many potential patrons away. It's a delicate balance for anyone to maintain.

But it seemed like Giftos was able to find one that worked for him. Though there were challenges and a near shutdown, he kept going and trying to find the one product that would set him apart.

As we know, his hard work paid off.
In the beginning, soda was one of the only add-ons offered on the menuPhoto byMae MuonUnsplash

Original Menu

Giftos decided that one way to help keep the costs low was to only have a few select items on the menu. Among his choices were the top-selling coney dogs, coney island-style hamburgers, and a few sandwich choices. He also kept potato chips and soda to compliment the main course, The Detroit Free Press says.

Instead of having menus printed, he put everything on a hand-painted board.

By doing things this way, he was able to keep the price of the food to a minimum. In the early days of the business, he only charged $0.35 for a coney dog. And that was one of the more expensive items on the menu.

The low prices encouraged families to make the restaurant their lunch and/or dinner spot on the weekends. Teens flocked in during the week to curb their hunger until they made it home to a home cooked meal that their parents prepared for them.

During the early years, getting a seat at Giftos restaurant was hard. There were lines of people just waiting for one. But there weren't complaints, the food was hot and delicious. Staff members did their best to keep things moving along and people fed.

Customers came in hungry and left with a smile on their face and a full belly. Word of mouth began to spread, which helped keep the lines long and familiar faces coming in to visit.

A trend that continues to this day.
Families were the big demographic for the franchisePhoto byPablo Merchán MontesonUnsplash

Moving Forward

As the experiment continued to prove profitable, Giftos began thinking about bringing more restaurants to the area. In 1969, he opened a new store in St. Clair Shores. The popularity of the burgeoning franchise continued to grow, says the Detroit Eater.

Two years later, the businessman opened a store in Detroit proper.

All three stores offered the same menu. Giftos reasoned that it was profitable and helped set his restaurants apart from the competition. It was a successful formula, so why would he tamper with it?

But he decided that it might be wise to change a few things. He added new tables into the stores. Wait staff were encouraged to make sure that families got tables within minutes of walking in. Soft music played in the background.

All of these changes proved to be popular with the customer base. The Detroit News reports that growth continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Some of the locations began offering a drive-thru service, and others began offering beer and wine during this time. Additions that fueled rapid growth in the business.

Once Giftos' son took over, further adjustments were made. The menu expanded, more stores opened, and competition grew. But the popularity of National Coney Island has not waned. There are plans to open 2 new stores each year.

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Ed Anderson is a true crime and gossip writer from Detroit, Michigan. Ed is the author of several true crime books, most recently Financing Doubt.

Rochester, MI

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