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Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
William Drake makes coney dogs for customers at his Detroit’s Finest Coney Island stand.

Beware ‘right’ coney imitators: You’re busted

Former officer bringing taste of Detroit to city

– William Drake is out to rid the world of counterfeit Coney Islands.

The former Fort Wayne police officer is the owner of Detroit’s Finest Coney Island, and the businessman says he isn’t knocking existing hot dog establishments, “but if you’re going to call them Coney Islands you have to make them right.”

To make them “right” means starting with Vienna-style wieners in a natural casing, which produces a bit of a crunch when chomped on. Then, there is the matter of how to cook the frankfurters.

“You never boil them,” he said, sounding repulsed at the thought. “You always cook them on the griddle because they keep their flavor that way.”

Drake’s entrepreneurial mettle will be put to the test now that cooking likely will become his sole profession.

In March, the Fort Wayne Board of Public Safety voted to fire the Detroit native because of inappropriate conduct that included operating his Coney stand while in police uniform. He worked with the department for four years.

Although the dismissal still stings, Drake has moved on and has his eye on leasing a bricks-and-mortar location near the corner of South Anthony and Rudisill boulevards, where he currently sells his hot dogs.

He expects to move into a building on Oxford Street across from the Brownlee & Sons Market. Actually, the athletic father of four never wanted to leave his hometown, but looming law enforcement cuts prompted him to take his badge to Florida for about a year.

“They were talking about layoffs in Detroit, so we moved to Fort Lauderdale but it was too expensive,” said Drake, who was a member of the Detroit force for five years.

He and his family moved to Fort Wayne about 2007. By that time, Drake said he was already thinking about founding a restaurant. Starting a Coney Island stand was a way to test the waters and share one of his favorite dishes with Fort Wayne.

“There’s a lot to be done, but I don’t have a lot of money so I don’t want to get a small-business loan because I don’t want to go into debt.”

Drake hopes to open his restaurant by July. He has been advertising for workers on his Facebook page.

“When I got here, there were no Coney islands like back home, so I wanted to let people know what they were missing,” Drake said. “I’m just trying to stay positive. My wife works part-time, but this is my income now.

“Besides finding a location, there’s the commercial equipment that I will have to get, so it’s going to take a little time. I know I have to get a place because some people don’t really think you’re legitimate when you’re under a tent.”

One thing’s for sure: There are Coney connoisseurs in Fort Wayne.

“Woo boy, I come here about three times a week,” retiree Andy Calhoun said. “They’re the best in Fort Wayne. Nobody can touch ’em or come close. I don’t even think about going any place else.”

The same holds true for Abigail Banks. The BFGoodrich employee lived in the metro Detroit area for 15 years. During her time there, she “fell in love” with Detroit-style Coney Islands.

“When I first got to Fort Wayne, I tried some other coney places, but the taste ain’t the same,” she said. “I had been hearing that there was a stand that sold the real deal. (Drake) has a customer in me.”

The 30-something restaurateur says cooking runs in his family. He has a sister in Atlanta who is a pastry chef. She sells goodies from her home.

“She has experience, so I’ll be calling her,” Drake said. “The main thing is that Fort Wayne is really virgin territory for the right concept. If you have that, you can pretty much write your own check.”

Prices generally range from $2 to $4 for a meal. As Drake looks to add to his menu, though, costs are likely to change – especially as customers start to demand more items.

“I get people asking for French fries, but I don’t have a deep fryer on my cart,” said Drake, who also grills Polish sausages and hamburgers on his cart.

According to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council in Washington, D.C., consumers spent more than $1.7 billion on hot dogs in U.S. supermarkets in 2011.

“I really feel like Fort Wayne has been waiting on something like this,” Drake said.