Iconic Fort Wayne Restaurant Welcomes Everyone As Family
Coney Island has been a staple in Fort Wayne since 1914, and has been in the same family since 1916. This week on NorthEATS Indiana, WBOI reports on the history of the establishment.
Vasil Eschoff bought Coney Island in 1916, but his granddaughter Kathy Choka insists no one owns it.
“I like to say it has a life of its own, and we come and go, but we’re caretakers,” she said.
Choka never intended to run the family business. In fact, her father, Russ Choka, didn’t want her to work at Coney Island.
“I had to fight my way in here,” Choka said.
Choka says her father wanted her to work somewhere else, and she did until her brother died. Then, her father let her step in, but only because he thought she’d hate it. His plan backfired.
“I’m very suited for this. I don’t get to dress or smell as nice as I used to,” she said.
Choka was a history major, and she says she enjoys being a part of Fort Wayne’s history.
“To be able to be a part, at this time, in the Coney Island’s history, it’s an honor,” she said. “It really is.”
She says part of their enduring success is attributed to how little things have changed since her grandfather bought the restaurant. A photo of the restaurant from the early 1930s is nearly identical to the current setup, with a long booth through the middle of the restaurant, smaller stools next to it, and tables on the west side.
Choka says many generations visit the restaurant, and no matter how long ago they visited, they always say it looks just like they remember.
“This is a heritage. This is a part of Fort Wayne, an integral part of Fort Wayne because generations have grown up enjoying this place,” Choka said.
Jim Todoran is Choka’s business partner. He’s worked at Coney Island since he was 15 years old. His dad and 13 of his uncles have worked there too. Choka calls him family.
Todoran’s father died when he was young, and the owner’s son, Mike Choka, died in 1993. Choka says this brought them together, and chopping onions was their way of bonding.
Todoran says they chop an average of 75 pounds of onions every day.
“They’re chopped with a knife, usually there’s two of us, so it takes a few hours a day,” he said. “It’s a little extra effort, but we think it gives you the best result.”
When they come back to the Coney Island, I truly believe they see this as coming home.
Todoran’s sons are carrying on the family tradition. He has three sons who all work at Coney Island.
Both Choka and Todoran say customers are part of the Coney Island family too.
Rose and Don Ferguson have been married for 43 years and are regulars. Don says they’ve been coming to Coney Island for about 70 years.
“We’ve just always enjoyed this place,” Don Ferguson said. “I like the hot dogs, and she likes the baked beans.”
Choka says the holidays are a great time for business when people come downtown to see the light displays. During the season, Coney Island sells an average of 1,500-2,000 hot dogs every day.
It’s open late for those having a night on the town. The restaurant is open early too, at 8 a.m.
“Hot dogs for breakfast? Well, in a Spanish omelette you have onions, and meat, bread for toast, I said, ‘We got practically everything there,” Choka said.
Choka says this was started for third-shift factory workers. Although there’s been a decline in those jobs in recent years, she doesn’t plan on changing the hours.
Choka says she hopes the business continues for many years to come. She wants to preserve the building and the business for the generations of people who have made Coney Island a part of their lives.
“They may be somewhere else, whether it’s because of a war or because business and life took them somewhere else, but when they come back to the Coney Island, I truly believe they see this as coming home,” she said.
And for many customers who order the signature mustard, onion and chili-covered Coney dog, it is home.