Which Was The First Coney Island?

Heid’s of Liverpool, in Liverpool, NY, on April 20, 2018. While certainly not a “Coney Island restaurant” per se, it’s one of the earliest continually-operating hot dog shops in the U.S., and may be where Simion Brayan stopped near Rochester on his way to Flint.

There is constant debate about when and where the Coney Island hot dog was first served. As to current discussions and, yes, arguments, the earliest known year is 1914, with Ft. Wayne’s Famous Coney Island Wiener Stand in Ft. Wayne, Indiana [“History page“, Ft. Wayne’s Famous Coney Island], and both Todoroff’s Original Coney Island in Jackson, Michigan [“Todoroff’s Original Coney Island“, Jackson, MI], and Virginia Coney Island [Virginia Coney Island, Jackson, Michigan] opening that year. Specific opening dates for those three locations are not known.

Discussions such as this one describe what defines either a “hot dog” or a “coney”, i.e., that it’s the sausage itself, not defined by any added buns, sauces, or other toppings. That page also shows that the Flint Coney Island initially described itself in 1920 as “Coney Island brought to Flint”, while offering New York-style Red Hots.

Considering these definitions, and in researching older newspapers, it’s now apparent the first Coney Islands weren’t where they might have been expected. The first decade of the twentieth century saw numerous Coney Island stands and shops opening across the country, “bringing Coney Island” to those communities. An example of this occuring in Michigan were a pair of Coney Island Red Hot stands operated by one individual, a John L. Hay, at waterside parks in Saginaw and Bay City.

The ad in the Bay City Times on May 31, 1907, for the opening of Wenona Beach Park that June 2nd.
Wenona Beach Park in Bay City, Michigan, which had first opened in 1900 and was expanded in 1903, opened for the 1907 season on June 2nd. An ad in the Bay City Times on May 31st described a casino, a one-act play and other entertainment, rides, restaurant, ice cream, and “Coney Island Red Hots.” How those were to be provided wasn’t quite clear in the ad.
The ad in the Bay City Times on July 4, 1908.
For the ad for Wenona Beach Park the following year on July 4, 1908, the Red Hot Stand was described as “The Original John Hay Coney Island”, with a W.W. Hodgkins being named as “Prop.” (Proprietor) This is apparently the first naming of a stand or restaurant outside the state of New York as a “Coney Island.”
The ad in the Saginaw News on July 3, 1911, for John Hay’s second location.
By 1911, Hay’s Original Cony [sic] Island Red Hots had apparently become so popular, he opened a second location at Riverside Park slightly south of Bay City in Saginaw, Michigan. The ad for that opening also included a photo of Mr. Hay, with the caption “You All Know Him.”
The ad for the baker of the buns for John Hay’s Red Hots on June 17, 1916.
By 1916, Hay’s “sugar bun” supplier Westphal’s Home Bakery advertised their cakes, breads, cookies, and other items in the Saginaw News, piggybacking their ad on his stand’s increasing popularity.
Ads for John Hay’s stands at Riverside Park in Saginaw and Wenona Beach Park in Bay City ceased after 1919 and 1920 respectively, indicating Mr. Hay had likely closed those stands.

Flint Coney Island's New York Red Hots

The first advertisement for the Flint Coney Island. Flint Journal, July 3, 1920.
This July 1920 advertisement contains some interesting information. It turns out coneys in Flint weren’t always what Coney Island restaurant patrons are used to getting today. In fact, for a few years at the very beginning of the phenomenon, the only coneys available in Flint were New York style.
The advertisement for the recently-opened Flint Coney Island in the Flint Journal on July 3, 1920 seems to bring confusion to the timeline of the Flint Coney itself in view of Simion Brayan’s 1921 immigration record at Buffalo, New York, from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In reality though, this advertisement clears up a number of questions about not only the timeline, but also answers questions about the restauranteurs’ concept of the ‘Coney Island’ restaurant phenomenon itself in Flint, and what likely finally drove Brayan to the development of the Flint Coney.
First is the phrase that’s most prominent in the advertisement, ‘Coney Island … Brought to Flint’. This verifies that, in fact, Flint Coney Island was originally a direct attempt to bring the flavors of Coney Island, New York, to the city. This can also be seen in the offering of Charles Feltman’s Red Hots with a ‘snappy chilli [sic] sauce’, which is exactly what Feltman’s and Nathan’s were serving at the time.
But even more telling for the timeline is the lack of a mention of Koegel products within the advertisement. Brayan wouldn’t arrive in Flint until after 1921, so the Flint Coney as we know it was yet to be offered at Flint Coney Island. This is then the restaurant as George N. Brown and Steve George operated it, prior to Brayan’s development of the Flint Coney we know today.
What becomes apparent here is that, when Brayan arrived in Flint, Flint Coney Island would have been serving a dish very similar to what he had tried and disliked near Rochester, New York. That may have been the very impetus he needed to develop the Flint Coney as we know it today, which was first served at Flint Coney Island in 1923 or 1924.

Coney Shops Opening Dates Nationwide

A timeline of openings of the first two decades of the earliest coney island restaurants in widespread areas of the US is rather telling. The first two, Mr. Hay’s stands, are included merely as examples of earlier Coney Islands, not as definitive “firsts.” It’s possible, albeit likely, that any claim of a “first” stand outside of New York City may never be proven.

Except for Lafayette and American Coney Islands in Detroit, Todoroff’s and Virginia Coney Island in Jackson, Michigan, and Coney Island Lunch and Coney Island Texas Lunch, both in Scranton, Pennsylvania, each of the owners would likely not have known what the others were doing, as communication between immigrants in those days was sparse. It’s also clear that the owners immigrated from various parts of Greece and Macedonia at various times. That the Coney Island phenomenon occured at all is an interesting matter.

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