Live here long enough, and you’re sure to hear about Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island.
The eatery, squashed between a row of buildings on Main Street between Calhoun and Harrison streets, is known for hot dogs doused in chili sauce with a thin blanket of minced onions on top.
Perhaps you add a little extra of this and that or maybe wash it down with Coca-Cola out of a bottle because it tastes better than out of a can. However you bite it, co-owner Kathy Choka said Coney Island’s 100th anniversary celebration Saturday was for customers as much as it was for her family.
The main event was the first Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest, which challenged contestants to finish 10 famous coney dogs with the fastest time. The top 10 eaters after 10 preliminary rounds will compete in the championship round at the Three Rivers Festival on July 12.
It’s like a relative turning 100 because that’s how we view Coney Island, and our customers do as well, Choka said. We wanted this to be a great party because not every business can celebrate 100 continuous years of operation.
Saturday’s celebration at Deer Park Pub was filled with music by Pop ’n’ Fresh, which finished its set with Hot Dog, a fitting parody of Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog.
Magician and family friend Dick Stoner also provided some family entertainment. Stoner’s Funstore has shared the corner at Main and Harrison streets with the Choka family since 1949.
The hot dog contest served as an interesting study in mastication. Some contestants decided to shove steamed bun and all in their mouths without much thought. Others took even, continuous bites, slowly rotating their jaws and trying to avoid the wall, which usually kicked in by hot dog No. 5. The contestants munched on as a boisterous Tony Henry, owner of Deer Park Pub, blasted the play-by-play into the microphone.
Tony Henry worked for us when he was a kid. In fact, he’s my partner’s uncle, Choka said. It’s part of their family. When we asked Tony, he was so excited about it – of course, Tony is excited about everything, as you can tell.
Nicolai Groves, an eating contestant who fell a couple of hot dogs short of swiping the fastest time in the first round, said although he doesn’t go to Coney Island often, it has become an annual family tradition during the holiday season.
We usually go see the Santa, (Christmas light display on the PNC Bank building) then walk on over and grab a few hot dogs, he said. It’s about family, and passing it on to a new generation. Everyone has grown up with it, and they want their kids to experience, it’s just a hometown thing.
Although the business started in 1914, the family legacy began when Vasil Eshcoff became co-owner in 1916 and continued in that role until the late 1950s. Due to Eschoff’s failing health, he turned over the business to his son-in-law Russ Choka, a well-known fixture in the business until his death in 2011. His wife, Helen Eshcoff Choka, was in attendance Saturday, sharing stories about working in the kitchen.
Kathy Choka took over the business after her father’s death, then welcomed new business partner James Todoran in 2013.
But no matter who has been at the helm of the business, the charming atmosphere has never changed.
It has its own identity, and it’s intangible, Kathy Choka said. You can’t go to business school and create it. It’s just a legacy of friendliness.
We want people to feel like they can be themselves. The greatest thing about it is that it’s such an open, welcoming atmosphere that strangers start talking to each other.
I think that’s why the people feel such an attachment.
Elizabeth Diller, who makes a point of going to Coney Island far more than once a year, watched her daughter Claire, 7, hula- hoop in a cloud of bubbles spurting from the bubble machine. She said it’s one of the few places that kids are guaranteed to love.
You’re going to have great time and great food, she said. You see this family pass down something from generation to generation, and that’s what we all want to do with our children – pass down a legacy.
For Choka, who sees the downtown landscape changing, her birthday wish for Coney Island is to see it continue to give the city an extra serving of heart.
People know what to expect when they walk into Coney Island, she said. That was true 100 years ago, and it will be for the next 100 years.