Loyal following pays off
Story & photos by Cherlene Willis, LocalShops1
When the neon sign at Coney Island Sandwich Shop lights up, it means the cooks have turned on the grill and the servers are ready to go.
Coney Island, St. Petersburg’s oldest restaurant, is best known for its signature Coney Dog: grilled hot dog topped with mustard, chopped onions and fresh chili on a steamed bun. When Coney Island opened in 1926, the dog cost a nickel. Today, a chili dog is $2, a hamburger $3, and a milkshake $3.75.
Pete Barlas was the one who started it all, and when his sons George and Hank grew up, they became partners in the family business. Pete and George have since passed, leaving Hank Barlas, 78, as the sole owner.
“I just love seeing customers over the years,” Barlas says. “I try to keep it as much as the way it was.”
Nostalgia and old-fashioned customer service keep his extended family and loyal guests smiling.
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Customers from all walks of life stop by for a taste of Coney’s secret homemade chili. You’ll find men and women in suits and ties and children not yet tall enough to reach the counter. Some have been coming for so long they are part of the restaurant’s history.
Evelym Cary, a St. Petersburg native, was only 8 when she first had her taste of Coney Island 50 years ago. “They’re the best,” she says. “My mom always ordered two Coney dogs and buttermilk.”
Today, Cary also orders two Coney dogs, but she occasionally substitutes the buttermilk for a hand-spun chocolate milkshake. They’re the best in town, she says.
About 80 to 90 percent of its customers are regulars, says manager Gail Kelley. “We’re like a family,” she says, adding that the cooks and servers know the customers by name, or at least by what they order.
“When we see them walking up the street, we’ll already start getting their chili dogs ready,” says Shari Schwan, one of the servers.
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It’s because of these loyal customers that Coney Island is still going strong, Kelley says, even though they serve less than half the 1,000 hot dogs they used to sell 20 years ago.
Kelley’s wishes for the future include maintaining the shop’s 1950s-era features and its longtime customer base, while finding ways to also bring in a younger crowd. After all, as the older, longtime customers pass on, it will be up to the new generations to make sure St. Pete’s historic gem sticks around.
“I can’t imagine working anywhere else,” Kelley says.
Impress your guests with Coney Island's famous coleslaw! This recipe gets you 60 servings!
Story by Cherlene Willis for LocalShops1, Tampa Bay's most active advocate for small businesses.
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