Is there a more ubiquitous food item than the hot dog? From roadside drive-in’s to burger shacks, the hot dog is an American favorite. And yet, this humble delight has an extensive passport. Historians credit the Roman emperor Nero, whose cook, Gaius, may have linked the first sausages. After traveling across Europe, sausage made its way to Germany where German immigrants popularized the hot dog at Coney Island. Working for a mere $11 per week slicing buns, a Polish-Jewish immigrant saved enough money to buy his own competitive hot dog stand. He named it, “Nathan’s”.
Tulsa has its own history with this epicurean delight. Beginning almost 90 years ago, Christ Economou, a Greek immigrant, made his way to New York’s Ellis Island. Riding the train rails across the new frontier, Christ opened hot dog stands as he traveled the nation. Each time he began a new venture, he would sell the stand to a local immigrant so the new owner could make money for his family. Then, Economou moved on to the next adventure. Finally, Economou found himself in Tulsa where he opened his 27th Coney stand, naming it, “Coney Island”.
The year was 1926 and though the location has changed a few times since then, the menu has stayed virtually the same as on that opening day. Coney Island has made a new home for itself in the Brady Arts District where the locals line up to the door at lunch for that undeniably original Coney taste.
“We wanted to find a place that complimented the energy of my family,”
said Vicki Economou, Operations Manager and daughter-in-law to Jim Economou.
She and her husband Jim (along with the family) now operate the business in the new, 975 square feet at the NW corner of Archer and Main. Here, they make sixty pounds of fresh chili each day and continue the legacy that is theirs to share.
The most recent addition to the menu is the Gourmet Baked Potato which was added several years ago. This compliments the coneys, Frito Pie, Tamales and the noted “3 Way” for which Coney Island is known. It’s not only the menu that has stayed consistent: it is the extended family of the Economou’s that have kept this restaurant strong for almost a century. “Every day, at least one customer will approach me to tell me about a memory from our store,” Vicki said. In fact, while we enjoyed the hospitality of the Coney Island staff, at least one guest stopped to share that he brought a friend who just arrived from out of town to his favorite restaurant, Coney Island.
Additionally, we observed a guest arrive for his first visit to this new location. “Yeah, they brought the classroom chairs!” he said of the dining room guest chairs – a signature of the original Tulsa Coney Island. An extra special touch to the new location includes the original grill that the Economou family restored for Coney Island’s new home. “We’re preparing for our 90-year anniversary,” said Vicki, “and we want to make everything as much like the original store as possible.” This special event, slated for early 2016, will celebrate a benchmark for Tulsa and Coney Island. The commitment to authenticity includes the spirit of family that extends to Coney Island’s staff. Many of the employees come to work and stay for years. Some, like Joe Bear have been with the Economou’s for thirty years and so guests can know the staff by name.
“Our guests are our friends”
All employees learn all parts of the business from cooking to greeting guests. “Everyone does anything that needs to be done,” said Vicki and her six-day work week proves that she takes this leadership commitment to heart. In the spirit of the original Coney Island, Economous feel strongly about helping others achieve their family goals. Many of the staff learn English by making hot dogs for guests and many go on to open their own restaurants. For this reason, Tulsa has other hot dog establishments that are relatives and friends who learned the business from the Economou’s. Some hot dog restuarants are very similar in menu and some have similar names, such as Coney Islander. “But,” says Economou, “there’s only ONE Coney Island.”
The Economou family renovated the present location themselves, even calling in family to build and paint the 25-foot ceilings. “Everything we do, we do as a family,” said Vicki. Her daughter Caitlin, a graduate of TCC’s Hotel, Restaurant and Hospitality, works alongside her. “When it’s busy, I call the family and they all come to help,” said Vicki.
Another original Coney Island hit: the coveted paper Coney Island hat, given to the youngest of Coney Island guests. This simple gesture, the commitment to family and the original Coney Island spirit, Coney Island will easily celebrate for another century.