Coney Island's 100th birthday party
What: The iconic hot dog joint on Main Street is celebrating 100 years in business this year with a party and a Coney-eating contest.
When: Noon-11 p.m. Saturday; Coney-eating contest starts at 2 p.m.
Where: Deer Park Pub, 1530 Leesburg Road
Cost: Free, but food (including Coney dogs) and beverages are available for purchase.
It seems only fitting that Fort Wayne's Famous Coney Island would celebrate its 100th anniversary with a Coney-eating contest.
And that's exactly what they plan to do Saturday. But that's just part of the bash that starts at noon at Deer Park Pub, 1530 Leesburg Road. "This is a birthday party for the community," said Kathy Choka, who owns the iconic hot dog joint with partner Jim Todoran.
But why have a party at Deer Park, you might ask, when Coney Island is at 131 W. Main St.?
As Choka explained it, Tony Henry, who owns Deer Park and is Todoran's uncle, worked at Coney Island as a teenager, along with some of his brothers. He has the space to pitch a tent, and extra parking will be available across the road at the University of Saint Francis.
And don't worry — the famous hot dogs will be sold all day. Three bands will entertain under a big top. There will be beer trucks available (now that's something you can't get at Coney Island) and face painting as well as other activities for the kids. Choka said the event is family-friendly
The hot dog heats will be 2-4:30 p.m., and the bands will play into the night.
The restaurant, a downtown institution, opened in 1914. Russ Choka's father-in-law, a Macedonian immigrant named V.K. Eshcoff, bought the business in 1923 with partner V.L. Litchin. Russ Choka took over in the 1950s, and his son, Mike Choka, eventually became manager. He died in 1993 of pancreatic and liver cancer.
Russ Choka died in 2011 at age 88. He was still working at the wiener stand, chopping onions every day, up until he died.
The Chokas served and continue to serve all walks of life, from the less-fortunate to some of the most weathy, influential people in the community. Ian Rolland's picture hangs on the wall; he was formerly chairman and CEO of Lincoln National Corp.
Kathy Choka, Russ's daughter, had to convince her dad to let her work at Coney Island back in the mid-'90s. At the time she was working an office job, and Russ Choka thought that was a more appropriate place for her than a hot dog stand.
Eventually she talked her dad into letting her work there. She says it's so much more fun than working in an office, though acknowledges at the end of the day she "doesn't smell as good."
"It is a pure joy to be there every day," she said.
Part of the attraction is due to the Chokas' efforts to keep everything much the same as it was back in the day. Booths, fixtures, signs — including one that says "we steam our buns — just don't change from year to year.
"Jim (Todoran) and I both know the uniqueness of Coney Island," Kathy Choka said. "We cherish it and protect it."
They still chop 75 pounds of onions by hand every day. They've been using the same food vendors for years. If you sit at a counter and place an order you listen to servers shout orders in what can only be called Coney Island shorthand to the employees preparing the dogs.
The biggest change came in February when Coney Island started accepting debit and credit cards. "It's been well-received," Kathy Choka said. "It's not that big of a deal."
Many who have enjoyed Coney Island want to share the experience with younger generations. So people bring in children, grandchildren, and probably great-grandchildren to share a fond memory of the good old days.
"It's about tradition," Kathy Choka said. "It's been such a part of their lives."