Flint, MI — The sun was out, which meant time for the sound of bike tires on the sidewalk, a door opening to a crowded coney restaurant, the jingle of change in a pocket and then leaving with enough Flint-style coney dogs to feed the family.
For Genesee County Historical Society President Gary Fisher, this was his childhood: fully engulfed in Flint’s “Coney Culture.”
“I probably had a coney dog somewhere along the first time I was able to eat solid food,” he said.
Fisher grew up two blocks away from Angelo’s Coney Island, which sat on the corner of Franklin Avenue and Davison Road. His mother was seven years old when Angelo’s opened in 1949, so she was among its original patrons.
Now, as GCHS president, Fisher is part of the group that hosted “A Salute to Flint’s Coney Culture,” an event on Saturday, April 15, 2023, meant to preserve the history of a Flint-style coney dog and the culture surrounding it.
“It’s about the coney culture, it’s not as much about the coney dog,” he said.
History of the ‘Coney Culture’
Fisher said the concept of a coney dog first came to Flint in the early 1900s when Macedonian immigrants moved to town. He said they tried the hot dogs, which were called “red hots” on Coney Island in New York City, and decided to put their own spin on things.
From the coney dog came a culture that developed around it. The very first coney restaurant in Flint was downtown on Saginaw Street, called “Flint Original.”
According to “Two to Go: A Short History of Flint’s Coney Island Restaurants,” a book compiled by the Genesee County Historical Society that is available in the Flint Public Library, the partners of Flint Original, which opened in 1919, were George Brown, Steve George, Paul Branoff and Simeon “Sam” Brayan, a Macedonian immigrant.
In its prime years, 1924-1926, Flint Original was selling as many as 4,000 coneys per day. The restaurant stayed open until 1979, and never in its 60 years of business did they ever expand from their original menu — coney dogs, chili and drinks, according to the book.
People would go to work at the original coney restaurant downtown, learn its ways and then go out and open up coney restaurants in Flint’s neighborhoods, like Angelo’s near Fisher’s childhood home. “Two to Go” labels Angelo’s as the most famous coney island in Flint, if not the world.
“If you haven’t been to Angelo’s, you haven’t been to Flint,” it reads.
The daily grocery list for Angelo’s was 700 hot dogs, four gallons of chili sauce, six gallons of chopped onions and two gallons of mustard, with even more needed on Fridays and Saturdays.
Angelo’s legacy lives on beyond the book, too. That much was evident at the GCHS event, where Angelo Popoff, one the longtime owners of Angelo’s, sat surrounded by family at a front-center table.
“It’s happy, but in a way, sometimes, it’s sad,” Popoff said, explaining that his six longtime business partners have all passed away in the years since their time together at Angelo’s.
Popoff and his family laughed and smiled together as Dan Hall, a singer/songwriter from Flint, performed a song from his album “Breakfast at Angelo’s.”
“We were one big family,” said Mary Papadopoulos, Angelo Popoff’s daughter, describing the old crew at Angelo’s. “It was always one big family, so today was extremely special.”
Fisher said there was a particular excitement to getting a coney dog in Flint because of the community and culture that developed around it.
“Other things tended to divide people by race and class and age and sex, but nothing brought people together like the coney culture,” he said.
“Two to Go” also details that culture.
“The factory could be an unwelcoming, prejudiced place. The language barrier was very real. There were strange rules and unsympathetic supervisors,” it reads. “The restaurant was a safe haven for the new immigrants.”
However, over the past decade, coney culture has been dwindling in Flint, Fisher said. “It’s like a lot of old traditions in Flint. It’s fading, a lot of [coney restaurants] are closing.”
Even Angelo’s, Fisher’s favorite spot, closed in 2018 after being open since 1949.
“That’s why places like Angelo’s had to close, the neighborhoods got more dangerous, then the homes, of course, fell into disrepair. There was no next generation to buy them,” he said.
What makes the Flint-style coney dog special
The Flint coney dog is different from other places, like Detroit, that claim to have their own style, Fisher said.
“It starts with the dog,” he said, which is slightly longer than an average hot dog.
Additionally, while regular hot dogs burn or split when left on the grill, Koegel’s, a German meatpacking company that started in Flint in 1916, created a dog specifically for Flint’s coney that can cook on the grill for longer.
Later, the dog became known as the Koegel’s Coney Frank.
John Koegel, the president of Koegel Meats, said the Coney Frank is similar to the company’s Viennas, except that the Coney Frank does not have nonfat dry milk or corn syrup. Koegel said his grandfather, Albert Koegel, worked directly with the owner of Flint Original to come up with the Coney Frank.
Today, the Coney Franks are still made by Koegel’s, but they are only sold to coney restaurants in Michigan — they are not available for purchase in grocery stores.
To make up for the longer frank, Mr. Bread, another Flint-based company, made longer buns, about seven inches long, to be a bit sturdier than a normal hot dog bun, Fisher said.
Then, there’s the coney sauce.
“Two to Go” reads that the original coney sauce blended beef heart and kidney with beef, using beef suet as a base. The sauce is made by boiling commercially prepared beef suet for several hours, then browning finely chopped onions in it. Then, the spices and meat are added.
On top of that goes finely chopped onions and mustard. When coneys were at their peak, the book notes, restaurants would go through 15 bags of onions per week.
“All those ingredients have to be exactly like I described and if the bun’s too small and flimsy, if it’s not a Coney Frank, if the sauce isn’t right, the onions aren’t chopped to the right size, then that’s not—you know, it’s okay, it might taste good—but it’s not a Flint coney. It’s not an actual, legit Flint coney,” Fisher said.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect the full list of Flint Original’s founders, which were not listed in “Two to Go.” Fisher said he is now working to update “Two to Go” with more information and plans to discontinue the prior version when the revision is ready.