Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

One Hot Dog: How Tulsa Became a Coney Town

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

One Hot Dog: How Tulsa Became a Coney Town

Article excerpt

In the 1920s, when the popularity of Nathan's Famous hot dog stand in Coney Island, N.Y., began to spread far and wide, a smattering of hot dog restaurants popped up in other cities around the U.S. Many of these restaurants, eager to be associated with the popularity of Nathan's dogs but unable to use the name, borrowed the Coney Island moniker instead.

Greek immigrant Christ Economou opened his first Coney Island restaurant in 1919 in McKeesport, Pa. Economou's hot dogs were smaller than normal, served on a steamed bun and topped with Greek- style chili and chopped onions. After the first restaurant gained some success, Economou sold it and went on to open Coney Island shops in various other cities around the country. He would open a shop and wait for it to take off, then sell it and move on.

In 1926, Economou came to Tulsa and opened the Coney Island 5 Cent Hot Weiner Shop in the heart of the downtown area. His son, Jim, who now owns the restaurant, said the elder Economou loved Tulsa so much that he decided to settle here permanently.

Little did he know that his modest downtown restaurant, and the undersized chili dogs he sold there, would become a bona-fide institution in northeast Oklahoma. Like Buffalo's miniature chicken wings or Chicago's deep-dish pizza, Economou gave Tulsa its trademark cuisine. He turned Tulsa into a coney town.

A Tulsa tradition

Although it was a difficult era in which to open a restaurant, since the Great Depression would emerge in the coming years, Jim Economou said his father never wavered - he did anything he could to keep his Coney Island afloat.

Failure was not an option, Jim said. He was going to stick with it. If it meant working 20 hours a day, which they were doing at the time, they were going to do it.

Jim Economou believes the reason the restaurant survived the Depression, and probably the reason the Tulsa coney business has flourished since then, was the affordability of the product. While other restaurants offered a 50-cent steak in the Depression era, the 5-cent coney became the most popular lunchtime option in town.

Since then, a meal at a coney restaurant has become a family tradition for many Tulsans, passed down through the generations. Coneys have become so much a part of the fabric of Tulsa that former Tulsans can't make a trip to the city without stopping off for a little taste of home.

It's such an institution, said Irene Hopkins, owner of Jim's Coney Island - Never on Sunday Greek Restaurant. We have families that come in from out of town just to bring their kids to a real coney restaurant. We have people who call from other states, as far away as Hawaii, and have us send them coneys. We have people that come in here from Texas and order 40 coneys so they can pack them, freeze them and take them home.

Hopkins' father, Jim Bouakadakis, managed the original Coney Island until Christ Economou helped him open his own shop. Hopkins said her father cooked chili at the original restaurant for years, and when he branched out on his own, continued using the recipe.

It's (Christ Economou's) original recipe, but Dad pretty much perfected it, Hopkins said.

Ask anyone in the coney business what's the most important part of making a great coney, and the answer is always the same - it's the chili.

Making it just right

Carl Kennedy opened Carl's Coney Island in west Tulsa in 1971 and said he learned quickly that chili was the ingredient that would make or break a coney shop. With that in mind, Kennedy perfected his own method of making chili and eventually sold many of his coney restaurants and opened a chili plant outside Sapulpa.

The plant features four funnel-shaped vats in the corner of a large warehouse room with stirring utensils, which resemble the oars of a canoe, protruding from the top of each. Kennedy said he can make about 265 pounds of chili at a time in just one of the vats. …

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