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What is a coney dog? Al Roker learns the history behind an iconic Detroit food

The origins of Motor City’s chili-topped hot dog are rooted in the culinary heritage of Greek immigrants.
/ Source: TODAY

To many, Coney Island is one of America’s most historic boardwalk escapes in Brooklyn, New York, home to a famous amusement park and the original Nathan's Famous hot dog stand. But in Michigan, a coney isn’t a theme park, it’s a food — specifically a hot dog smothered in chili, then topped with mustard and chopped onions. And the roots of this savory dish date back to early 1900s.

In a special summer episode of his TODAY All Day series “Family Style,” Al Roker explores the history of Detroit’s famous coney dogs. While the name may sound familiar to many New Yorkers, the origins of the dish are actually Greek.

Al Roker learns how to assemble a traditional coney dog at American Coney Island, owned by Grace Keros, in Detroit.
Al Roker learns how to assemble a traditional coney dog at American Coney Island, owned by Grace Keros, in Detroit.TODAY All Day

In the late 1800s, Greece faced a massive economic crisis, setting off a wave of global migration. By 1920, it's estimated that over 400,000 Greeks had immigrated to the U.S., according to the Hellenic American Project. During this time, most European immigrants passed through New York before moving to other parts of the country.

“They entered, most of them, through Ellis Island, which is near Coney Island,” historian and co-author of “Coney Island Detroit” Joe Grimm told TODAY. “When they got here, we think what happened is they saw people on Coney Island in New York eating hot dogs and said, 'Ah, we're going to have to get jobs here. This is what Americans eat.'”

Borrowing the famous boardwalk’s name, Greek immigrants moved west and, at some point, decided to add a twist from their native country to distinctly American food. That twist was a chili sauce made with Greek spices.

“Now the true origins, like who invented the Coney dog, (is) lost to history,” Grimm added. “This is not the kind of stuff that people see as being historic when it happens. The newspapers didn't run out and do a story saying somebody has invented the Coney Island hot dog. It just sort of happened in a lot of places in about the same time, mostly by Greek immigrants.”

The coney hot dog is to Detroit what deep dish pizza is to Chicago or bagels and lox are to New York City. In Motor City, the oldest family-run coney spot is American Coney Island – and its history mirrors that of the many immigrants who came to Detroit at the turn of the century.

American Coney Island, which is now run by Grace Keros, a third-generation co-owner, is still cranking out coney dogs 105 years after the restaurant’s founding. Grace is the granddaughter of Constantine “Gust” Keros, a Greek immigrant who traveled to the U.S. in search of work in the auto industry. After failing to find work making cars, Gust and his brother, Bill, opened one of Detroit’s first coney shops in the early 1900s. A family rift caused the brothers to split, which led to side-by-side coney operations and a long-lasting restaurant rivalry. Lafayette Coney Island opened up right next door and today Detroiters swear allegiance to American or Lafayette, but only American is still owned by the Keros family (and fully family owned) today. Grace’s father Chuck Keros inherited the business from Gust, but Grace has now been at the helm for 30 years running the family business.

“The coney craze in Detroit really should be attributed to the Keros family. They were not the first on the scene, they were not only, but they have been here longer than anybody,” Grimm said, “and they have created — by family or business — so many Coney Island restaurants that we figure well more than 100 Coney Islands can trace their lineage directly to that flattop grill.”

Today, there are dozens of these diners throughout the Detroit metro area that all serve some version of a coney dog, plus Greek staples like gyros and salads topped with feta, cucumbers and Kalamata olives. But through the years, American has remained a staple in the Detroit community.

“I think back to my grandfather and my dad and the things they saw here, from riots to ... Tigers winning the World Series, when they were good," Grace told Al at American. “Such a deep history. And proud. I love this city.”

A coney hot dog is a Detroit staple and it's smothered in a savory chili sauce, tangy mustard and chopped onions.
A coney hot dog is a Detroit staple and it's smothered in a savory chili sauce, tangy mustard and chopped onions.TODAY All Day

Of course, a great hot dog wouldn’t be complete without a great bun. In Michigan, one bun that’s hearty enough to stand up to the coney toppings is the Coney Island Steamer, which was developed by another family-owned business: Metropolitan Baking Company. For 45 years, the Kordas family — who also trace their roots back to Greece — has been selling specialty breads throughout Detroit and the state. George Kordas, is the third-generation owner and president of Metropolitan. His grandfather, George James Kordas, began his career as a Ford car salesman. He later invested the money he made in his first bakery. What started as a small baking business is now one of the state’s largest suppliers of coney buns.

“The Coney Island steamer bun is our iconic … flagship item on the bun and roll line,” Kordas told TODAY. The bun is produced using a sponge dough method, yielding a unique flavor and a light, fluffier texture.

In the beginning, Metropolitan sold only bread loaves. Today, the factory produces dozens of items for grocery stories, high-end restaurants and, of course, Coney Island diners, including American Coney Island. George credits his father with helping the company take a larger slice of the bread market in the mid-eighties thanks to automation. The factory now produces over 25 million coney buns each year. That’s in addition to the different rolls, breads and even gluten-free items on the line.

While the Kordas and Keros families are working hard to keep their traditions alive for new generations, another family-owned restaurant is hoping to establish a new coney habit in Motor City.

In Detroit's Brush Park neighborhood, you’ll find CMO, also known as Chili Mustard and Onions. But unlike most diners in town, the coney, the sauce and everything else on the menu is plant based.

In 2018, Pete LaCombe, his wife Shellee and their daughter Darla launched CMO and to this day, it’s still the only all-vegan coney spot in Detroit. Before opening the restaurant, Pete worked in the auto industry, just like his father and grandfather. That lifestyle included some unhealthy eating habits and, inspired by his wife, Pete started experimenting with vegan recipes. He was blown away by the changes he saw in his own health and opened CMO to help others see that plant-based food doesn’t have to be boring. The family has been blown away by the positive feedback.

“I get teary-eyed when I'm in the kitchen watching people laughing and having fun and strangers sitting together and buying each other's food,” Pete told TODAY.

The LaCombes have been delighting vegans and non vegans alike with their Lightlife hot dogs smothered in a Beyond Meat crumble chili. For the skeptics out there, Pete has one message, "If I put something out there on a plate that is incredible, happens to be vegan, that changes minds and hearts and, you know, it's incredible.”