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May 3, 2022

Dave Liske: History of the Flint Style Coney Island Restaurant

Dave Liske: History of the Flint Style Coney Island Restaurant
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Dave Liske discusses his new book "The Flint Coney: A Savory History." Learn about the history of the Flint food culture and love affair with the Flint-style Coney Island hot dog.

In a lively interview with author Dave Liske who shares recipes, secrets, and myths about Flint and Detroit's legendary coney island hot dogs.

The history of Flint's food culture has taken a backseat to Flint's manufacturing of automobiles. But the origins and rapid expansion of the number of Macedonian Coney shops in Flint paralleled the explosive growth of the city's automotive industry throughout the twentieth century.

The story of the Flint coney island traces back to immigrants escaping the war-torn Balkans in the early 1900s. Many combined an idea for one dish with the skills of butchering and meatpacking experts from Wisconsin and Germany. The simple Flint Coney became an institution among the city's autoworkers, tradespeople, and families.

Mainstays such as Flint Original Coney Island, Angelo's, and Atlas were frequented by regular patrons for decades, with others such as Capitol and Starlite carrying on those traditions today.


To purchase the book, follow this link to the author's website: The Flint Coney: A Savory History.

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Transcript Interview with Dave Liske:

00:00:00 Arthur Busch

Welcome, Dave.

00:00:01 Dave Liske

Well, thank you.

00:00:02 Arthur Busch

Thanks for joining us on Radio Free Flint. This is the highlight of my year.

00:00:08 Dave Liske

Oh, thanks.

00:00:09 Arthur Busch

Dave, you've written a book which is called.

00:00:13 Dave Liske

It's called the Flint Coney, a savory history.

00:00:16 Arthur Busch

This book is about something close to the hearts of many people who call themselves Flintstones.

Your book is enjoyable for many reasons, but to me, it's interesting because it has recipes.

00:00:29 Dave Liske

Yes, it does, and.

00:00:30 Arthur Busch

Tell us about their recipes.

00:00:33 Dave Liske

Well, the recipe that was the whole reason I wrote the book in the first place was because of the recipes. The popular recipe is ground hot dogs and ground beef here in Luna Pier. In 2008 my oldest stepson and I operated a Flint Coney stand down on the beach about a quarter mile south of our house, and we made 72 batches.

Of that recipe and sold Flake Coneys right here in Luna Pier. I looked at the history of that recipe, which I thought was the real Angelo's recipe at the time.

I bought a copy of Two to Go from the Genesee County Historical Society, which they published in 2007.

00:01:16 Arthur Busch

That's a book.

00:01:17 Dave Liske

Yes, it is. It was a 24-page pamphlet, but that's where I learned that that is not the recipe at all.

So the whole process of the book became finding out about the recipe, then finding out about the Macedonian people who developed the recipe using the ground beef heart from Abbotts Meats.

It's nowhere near the ground hot dog recipe and then finding out their story of escaping the Balkans during the Balkan Wars of 1908 to 1913. Then it became a matter of telling their story for the last 12 years and putting this book together.

00:01:55 Arthur Busch

Well, most of My listeners like to think about Flint when they think of Coney Islands.

00:02:00 Dave Liske

Those were the Macedonians from the little village of Bouf and other parts of the country. They may have been Greek, for example, Detroit. Those people were Greek, but in Flint, those were Macedonians.

Now it's Greek, Macedonian, and Albanian that are the people who are operating those places now.

When I started looking into it, what's the difference between a chili dog and a Coney?

That's the difference. The only difference is that a Coney is from a place owned and operated by Greeks, Macedonians, or Albanians.

It's not a matter of the difference in what's on the hot dog. It's who made it for you.

Greeks in Detroit at the American Coney Island don't use beef hearts anymore. Still, the one next to it, Lafayette (Coney Island), uses beef heart, and in Jackson (Michigan), they use beef.

Only the restaurants in Michigan use beef heart chili or Coney sauce.

The definition of who made it for you could be a Macedonian making chili sauce. It could be Macedonian making what they call Coney sauce, but those three cultures define a Coney Island to me.

00:03:14 Arthur Busch

Now, if I go to whatever city in Greece or the place where these Macedonians live, or Macedonia, and I want to order a Coney Island on the menu...

Am I going to get one?

00:03:28 Dave Liske

No, you're not. They won't even know what it is. That happened when they came through Coney Island, NY. That's described in "2 to Go" and my book. It is one of the things that didn't make it into the book. There's an ad from July 3rd, 1920.

Flint Original Coney Island lunch. They didn't always serve what we know as a Coney today, and I will show you this.

This is from 1920, which says Coney Island brought to Flint, and it says red hot before Simeon Bran came to Flint, they were serving New York.

Coney Island red hots at Flint Coney Island until he came in and developed the recipe that we know today.

00:04:13 Arthur Busch

But when you went to Tiger Stadium as a boy, the old Tiger Stadium, you would hear vendors walking up and down the aisle saying red hots for sale. Red hots for sale!!

00:04:23 Dave Liske

Yes, those are from New York. Those are Coney Island red hots.

00:04:28 Arthur Busch

So, when you use this terminology, there are Macedonian Coney shops. You are saying that these are people from Macedonia rather than Flint, who run and established them.

Dave Liske:

Yes, absolutely looking into Flint's history.

00:04:53 Arthur Busch

If you had to list the most famous Coney Islands in Flint objectively, since you're an expert, what would they be?

00:04:55 Dave Liske

The ones that seem to get the most attention are Starlite, Capital, Atlas, which is now Dom's Diner, Palace in the Genesee Valley Mall, Angelo's, of course, and Gillies in Mount Morris.

We covered my book, the bottom two coneys there. I shot that picture in August at Dave Gillies.

00:05:14 Arthur Busch

I think you missed two high-volume places in the Flint area: Starlight Coney Island.

00:05:20 Dave Liske

Oh, I thought I mentioned that.

00:05:22 Arthur Busch

And Mega Coney Island.

00:05:24 Dave Liske

Oh yes, Mega got a lot of attention in "Coney Detroit." Written by (Professor) Joe Grimm he did a whole story on them.

They were Albanian. That's one of my favorites to go to.

00:05:37 Arthur Busch

If you look back historically in Flint, some of the first Coney Islands were located on South Saginaw St, right?

00:05:44 Dave Liske

Yes, they were quite a few. There was seven downtown at one time within. They are just a couple of blocks from each other.

00:05:50 Arthur Busch

For the audience's benefit, you have a map someplace I saw in this book or an addendum to the map.

00:05:56 Dave Liske

Yes, there are three maps.

00:05:58 Arthur Busch

You could go on a Flint Coney Island food tour if you want.

00:06:02 Dave Liske

Yes, you could. I thought about putting something like that together.

00:06:06 Arthur Busch

Well, still time.

00:06:07 Dave Liske

There isn't any downtown and.

00:06:09 Arthur Busch

No, but some of those that were downtown are the ones I remember as a kid where you know, my mother would take me to get a haircut at the old Flint Barber College.

00:06:17 Dave Liske

Oh yes, absolutely.

00:06:18 Arthur Busch

And then I'd walk past this spooky place called the Brass Rail, which was spooky to me at the time and was a lot of fun. If you could drink alcohol, we walked further to the north on the other side of Saginaw St. We would come to these Coney Islands. They had like little cafe tables inside and the guy in the window.

Screaming, all kinds of stuff and hot dogs were in the window, and then he went to the back of the restaurant, and they sold Stroh's beer.

What happened to that place?

00:06:53 Dave Liske

I have no idea. I haven't found the history of individual places, which can be difficult at best. One location, 200 S. Saginaw, was Original Coney Island, US Coney Island. Mike's Coney Island, Nick's Coney Island, and then Mike's again.

So they changed hands so many times. If you look at the book's cover in that top photo, Nick's is sitting next to Flint Coney Island.

00:07:21 Arthur Busch

He's still around, by the way, Nick.

00:07:23 Dave Liske

Oh, he is.

00:07:25 Arthur Busch

Yeah, Nick George, that was his father's or uncle's restaurant. He's from Grand Blanc.

00:07:31 Arthur Busch

Very successful businessman.

00:07:33 Dave Liske

Even that one changed hands so many times, finding out any history of why it closed. That's almost impossible to do.

00:07:41 Arthur Busch

You made an interesting comment in some of the promotional materials to say that Coney Island was one thing that Flint was a success story.

Yes, besides Buick Electra 225.

00:07:50 Dave Liske

Yes, it was.

00:07:54 Arthur Busch

Two Coneys and the Chevy Corvette. I mean, putting Coney Island right next to those things.

Maybe don't eat those Coney islands inside your new Corvette while driving. It's impossible.

00:08:05 Dave Liske

Right, right?

00:08:06 Arthur Busch

But you said it was a success story for Flint, right?

00:08:10 Dave Liske

Well, it was a success story for the people. There were a lot of people. One man made so much money that he built a seven-mile highway in Macedonia. He did many other things for the village of Bouf and the surrounding area of Florina. There is a bust of him in that town.

Different political figures recognized him because of the things he could do with the money he made in Flint.

So, there were a lot of personal success stories among these individuals.

Because of the volume, they produced when they were open, 24 x 7, the heirs of these.

00:08:53 Arthur Busch

These entrepreneurs are in and around Flint. They have done other good things, but some heirs are still there.

George Poulos, for example, is White Horse. The White Horse Tavern in downtown Flint, where you have the Poulos brothers, who still operate one of Flint's most famous restaurants?

Are there other books about Coney Islands?

00:09:17 Dave Liske

Yes, there are. Coney Detroit is one of the better ones. Two To Go, the Genesee County Historical Society doesn't publish that one anymore, but it was pretty informative. There was some excellent information in it.

00:09:30 Arthur Busch

One of the people I just interviewed is a young fellow named Connor Coyne.

Oh yes, who's an author and novelist.

00:09:40 Dave Liske

I mentioned him in the book with his fictional gothic Flint Coney.

Yes, I do mention him.

00:09:46 Arthur Busch

Connor Coyne, a Flintstone, grew up in East Village, downtown. The college and cultural area. He wrote a book, and I don't remember its name, but he wrote a book in 2015 about Atlas Coney Island.

00:10:03 Dave Liske

Yes, I cover that. I've got it in my hand right here. Page 93. The Gothic punk style Coney and I do a 2/3 page on him.

Just part of what I have here. Koegle's becomes the Richard Gorlick Bavarian encased meat company, later known just as auto workers are called Automobilians, and Flint is Akawi. The author's fictionalized city is referred to in other words.

He does describe the recipe correctly.

Finely ground beef, the heart of beef, kidney mixed with beef, suet, brown, minced onions, and sanguine spices.

Something magical.

Nobody knows what but the Coney chefs.

And if they told them they would not be gods, that's somebody who's writing.

About the Flint.

00:10:51 Arthur Busch

Now, is that a secret?

The recipe isn't a secret because, you know, I also interviewed Marty Embry. He developed a Coney to call it a spice mix or something.

00:11:00 Dave Liske

It's a coney spice blend. Yes, yes, you can add that to pretty much any meat.

He's even used the impossible ground beef to make a vegan point, Coney, so you can use it with just about anything.

If you look at 2:00 to go, I just Reggie the secret if you look at the description.

It's no secret you go to Abbott Meat.

You ask them for the 25-pound bag of the Coney base they provide to the restaurant, and they will sell that to you.

It's not frozen because they provide it to the restaurants to be used that day. I grabbed some last August. I split it up into £1.00.

Ziplock bags. And I've taken that from Maine to Wyoming; I still have two bags left from that £25 bag.

00:11:47 Arthur Busch

Many people fly into Flint just to get the Coney stuff. The sauce.

00:11:52 Dave Liske

Yes, they make a four-pound bag and a £10 bag, frozen, that is already spiced.

You just heat them, but this 25-five-pound bag is what the restaurants use; that's their base unseasoned.

And it's just a ground beef heart blend with a few other things in it, and that's it. And it was inexpensive.

00:12:16 Arthur Busch

Well, I just use ground beef like without all that grease in.

00:12:19 Dave Liske

So yes, yes.

00:12:20 Arthur Busch

It and it tasted identical, and Marty Embry.

Those of you who are listening can go to that podcast episode.

I think Marty has some contact information if you want to buy his seasoning stuff.

He lives in North Carolina and is a Flintstone, a well-known professional basketball player. Starts at central; he actually, I don't know how he produced this. Now he did work at Tommy's at one point.

00:12:45 Dave Liske

Yes, he did. Yes, he did.

As far as the so-called secret recipe, all they do is mince up some onions they put in beef tallow, lard, or vegetable oil. They add spices to that.

Let it simmer for a second, and then they put that Beef heart in.

That's it, that's all.

You need to. Do some places use to add kidneys? Dave Gilley told me they would grind up kidney and add that to it. That's possibly what Angelo's.

00:13:13 Arthur Busch

What does it give you some kind of flavor or what?

00:13:17 Dave Liske

Yes, it makes it a lot more savory.

Maybe what Angelo's was doing was that they were adding just a little bit of kidney to them, and that's it. That's all there is to it.

The difference between the different restaurants is how much you add and cook things, all using that same beef heart base from Abbott.

00:13:35 Arthur Busch

What part of this Coney Island is the bread Mr. Bread, Dave Hartley, a good test?

Many of my listeners? We call it Mr. Bread. I guess that was the company he sold.

00:13:46 Dave Liske

Yes, it was.

00:13:47 Arthur Busch

He sold these buns. I mean, this guy made a lot of money by doing.

00:13:49 Dave Liske

It still does. I still see them, his son.

Darren and me.

00:14:00 Arthur Busch

Darren owns the company, Mr. Bread, right?

00:14:01 Dave Liske

Yes, in additional information, I had a conversation with Darren about those buns; they had gone to brown buns when his dad founded the company.

His dad used to work for tasty, and then they closed, so they decided to go ahead and make buns for the Flint Coney.

But what they wanted to do was to make a 7-inch bun.

Most buns are 6 inches, but the Coney Frank, the derivative of the Coco, Vienna, Coney, Koegel, Coney, Frank used in a restaurant, is 7 inches long.

So they wanted to make a 7-inch bun, so they went to brown Bun Bakery in Detroit.

They designed the seven-inch hot dog pan they used to make those for the Flint Coneys.

Since they specifically designed that bun for the Koegel Coney frame.

That's why they call it the original Flint Coney bun.

00:14:56 Arthur Busch

Now they seem to be steamed or something. There's some way they make them. Yeah, I could use it.

Usually, most of us put our buns in the fridge and forget about them.

00:15:08 Dave Liske

I worked for Halo Burger back in 80 and 81. Steaming buns is no big deal because you can get these drawer steamers commercially.

You take metal twist tie off of it, throw them in the morning, and then you restock during the day, and we need one.

You pull it out of the steamer drawer and put whatever you want on it.

So, it's pretty simple; you just have to buy those steamers. It looks like a drawer cabinet.

There are two of them. You could hold hundreds of buns.

00:15:36 Arthur Busch

How many calories are in a Coney Island?

00:15:39 Dave Liske

That's in my book.

00:15:40 Arthur Busch

Well, you're not saying it's healthy food, right?

00:15:42 Dave Liske

Uh, never. Never at all.

What are the things that happened was Halo Burger got sold?

00:15:52 Arthur Busch

Yeah, Dortch enterprises.

00:15:52 Dave Liske

So, they had to release nutritional information for all of their products.

So, all that information ended up in these fitness apps you can get for your phone.

Then they started selling the Flint Coney Halo burger. Still sell something.

I don't know if you're aware it's on their menu. They had to put the information out there. Calories are 411 according to the information that they released calories from fat is 216, and total fat grams is 23.

Wow, 8 grams. Of saturated fat, cholesterol is 56 mils grams, and sodium is 1 gram.

00:16:36 Arthur Busch

That's not so bad.

00:16:38 Dave Liske

Protein gives you 14 grams if you're making it the way they do in the restaurant.

If you're sauteing the onions in fat of some kind, use.

A vegetable oil. Use some kind of lighter fat canola oil to cut that back.

I use the old beef fat, which they used as a bridge.

I have a jar of beef fat in the fridge. That's what McDonald's used to fry their French fries before the whole trans-fat then, but I have a small jar of it.

It was expensive, though. A 16-ounce jar costs about $12.00.

00:17:10 Arthur Busch

Let's not tell people about that because they may be making a trip to their cardiologist before long so.

00:17:17 Dave Liske

Don't tell that to my pacemaker.

00:17:21 Arthur Busch

Is it in the hot dog in the sauce with the Coney Island, or is it in the bun, and we've talked about Dave Hartley and Mr. Bread revolutionizing?

The Coney Islands and I think Halo burgers used him as well, and they were magnificent, but we haven't talked about Abbott's meat yet. I mean, is it in the hot dog?

Why are these things so damn good?

00:17:45 Dave Liske

I think it's a combination. When you put something together in the right way, it has the right balance and a lot of chefs.

And kitchen managers will tell you to try different combinations; some people prefer Starlite's combinations, and some prefer Angelo's Coney Islands.

And that was variations of their sauce. It was how they treated the bun.

The timings and the different zones on the flat top grill were used for cooking the Coney Frank.

And it's a combination of things that give us certain results. The things I say in the book were that there is a distinct possibility that other meat packers over the decades may have tried to over the last almost a century. Still, in on that business the Koegel had with the Coney, Frank, and Abbots had with how they do the meat tie, they just couldn't make it work.

00:18:35 Arthur Busch

I want to go on to something else for my vegan friends and other health freaks out there.

And that is, let's talk about Koegel hot dogs because one of their claims to fame is that they've always claimed to have the highest quality hot dog in its states.

And your book has this very fascinating section about hotdog regulations. It talks about the difference between Michigan regulations and federal regulations.

That's why don't you go there with me on that.

00:19:09 Dave Liske

There was some history back in the 70s where Michigan tried to push its regulations on how hot dogs could be made and how any kind of sausage could be made and defined. They tried to kick up those regulations.

These national meatpacking companies fought at the federal level because that would have been a problem for them.

There were a lot of hearings for months, maybe years, in DC, where it was said that Michigan couldn't do that.

00:19:47 Arthur Busch

Michigan couldn't make a stricter regulation.

00:19:50 Dave Liske

No, they couldn't.

Michigan has suggestions on how to do that, but you don't. The meat packers don't have to follow them. Still, places like Koegel's Dearborn sausage make the ones for the Detroit Coney and many other companies in Michigan that make a natural casing hot dog. They still want to.

Do it the way they wanted back in the 70s, so they just go ahead and make it better.

Anybody else?

00:20:20 Arthur Busch

All right, so Dave, here's a deal. I read that section of your book.

OK, when I got done reading it. It makes a lot of sense. My dear friend Daniel Kildee, a congressman from the area, always says you don't like to watch the sausage making in Washington DC.

00:20:31 Dave Liske

Oh yes.

00:20:35 Arthur Busch

Because it gets something ugly and something you don't want to see. So, when I read that.

00:20:39 Dave Liske


00:20:40 Arthur Busch

Section I immediately thought about Congressman Dan Kildee. The lobbyists bought some kind of rules that you're talking about. They want to put all kinds of crap in there, including eyes, tongues, and weird stuff, into the hot dogs.

And so most people won't eat a hot dog because of this.

Most people I talked to say I don't mean hot dogs.

That's why Flint coneys don't have that problem, though, because they don't put all that weird stuff in there, right?

00:21:07 Dave Liske

Yes, but I eat beef tongue by itself and now.

00:21:10 Arthur Busch

You eat each. Now you go to the store and buy beef out for dinner tonight.

00:21:13 Dave Liske

There's no beef. Beef tongue.

My dad got me into eating cold head cheese when I was tiny.

It's a western thing where people don't want to eat that, and that's part of what I get into in the book.

Are these things used to be in the joy of cooking?

***** Farmer previously Boston.

The School of Cooking cookbook.

The beef heart, beef tongue. Those kinds of recipes are used.

To be in those books. But as of about the 60s and 70s, those recipes were removed.

People in the US used to eat that way. They just don't want to anymore. You're eating beef heart when you eat a Flint Coney.

00:22:00 Arthur Busch

I recommend my audience get Turkey and chicken ground Turkey.

00:22:00 Dave Liske

She didn't want it.

00:22:04 Arthur Busch

And ground chicken, and it is good.

Help us whatever; it's in that.

However, let me come back to your book again.

Now, if somebody wants to buy this book, how will they get it?

00:22:14 Dave Liske

You can go to Amazon and look for Flint Coney, A Savory History.

It's there in Kindle paperback and hardcover. Barnes and Noble have the paperback, but they also do the Nook button.

You could also go to Arcadia Press. That's the publisher, and you can also get it directly from...

00:22:31 Arthur Busch

The publisher Arcadia Press, which is an excellent press, by the way, for historic historical publications, is excellent.

00:22:34 Dave Liske

Yes, it is.

00:22:37 Arthur Busch

You also have a website called yes Flint Coneys

00:22:41 Dave Liske

Dot com, yes, it is Flint coneys.com.

00:22:41 Arthur Busch

Or something? You wrote a book about the Coney Islands, which are near and dear to the hearts of Flint people.

Do you consider yourself a Flintstone?

00:22:52 Dave Liske

Sure, I spent so much time downtown. I lived on Franklin St. I grew up going to the Longway Planetarium.

Well, my dad worked for Fisher Body and Grand Blanc.

Many of the hard-working people that I try to identify with are the Flint Coney themselves too.

They worked so hard. Those places were open 24/7 and worked hard to make people happy.

00:23:21 Arthur Busch

Is there a future for the Coney Island hot dog?

00:23:23 Dave Liske

I hope so. I hope that comes back a lot of the places have closed. Very few of them left.

For so long, there were so many, but the industry supported those places.

The places supported the industry, so they work hand in hand, and I'm not sure how that will work anymore, but I hope it does.

00:23:45 Arthur Busch

What do you see for Flint's future? By the way, since you?

00:23:48 Dave Liske

Grew up there.

There seems to be a renaissance that may be closer to a smaller version of what Ann Arbor has become. You've got these nice little places downtown that seems to be getting good attention, especially places like the torch grill.

But there seems to be a lot of attention being given to renovating and restoring things in a way that kind of brings it towards an Ann Arbor vibe, but more of a Flint vibe.

It's kind of hard to explain, right?

00:24:19 Arthur Busch

The last question is, what's your favorite Coney Island?

Detroit or Flint?

00:24:23 Dave Liske

Well, Flint, of course, but I will not say, well, that's the only one I'm going to eat.

I'm one of those people who understand that people like what they grew up with. So, I will like the Flint Coney, but I will try coneys from Grand Forks, ND, where they have a nice one.

You know to Texas. They have an interesting one with a Red-Hot Dog in Maine.

That they also put sauerkraut on hides of Liverpool, NY is one of our regular stuff. Tops hides opened in 1907; they serve a white-hot.

The New York White Hot is made with pork and veal.

I have those as often as possible, and they serve those on a New England roll.

The one with the sides cut perfectly straight, but they steam those buns.

With our travel to and from the East Coast, I might have eight or twelve of those a year, and I like them.

00:25:23 Arthur Busch

You list any of these in your book.

Some of these places are where people can ensure they catch up with their Coney.

00:25:26 Dave Liske

Oh yes. That white-hot has a photo of that package I went to Wegmans around the corner from hides a Liverpool.

I bought that package and put that photo in the book that served as a Coney in upstate New York.

That's how the White Hart is listed on the Mac.

00:25:50 Arthur Busch

Dave Liskey, what an honor to have you as my guest.