The real thing

By Allan I. Ross

National Coney brings taste of Detroit to East Lansing

My father, a native Detroiter, moved to Atlanta 12 years ago. Sure, he now only has to use an ice scraper once or twice a winter, but he also has to go without some of Michigan’s best creature comforts: decent bagels, trips to the cider mill and Coney dogs. When he comes up to visit family in the metro-Detroit area, a trip to a National Coney Island is mandatory (as is an order of four dozen bagels from my step-mother’s favorite deli to take back home), but for those of us even an hour away, getting a good chili dog sometimes seems like an equally far trip.

With all due respect to existing Lansing Coney Island restaurants (and the fans thereof), there is something unique about a National Coney Island, and its arrival in mid-Michigan — in the form of the new National Coney Station in East Lansing — is getting a reaction normally reserved for visiting ambassadors.

“Since we opened earlier this fall, we’ve had people that have come in that have just said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you for coming here,’” said Brad Egan, director of business development. “We’ve had a tremendous positive response so far.”

Egan said when the decision came to open a mid-Michigan restaurant, he and company president Tom Giftos were eyeing a location a little closer to the Capitol, but a chance drive by the MSU campus changed everything.

“I graduated from MSU in ’91, so when we came out here to do some location scouting I wanted to see the campus,” Egan said. “I saw this building was available and I knew we had to have it.”

The building, originally a Taco Bell, is on the corner of Bailey Street and Grand River Avenue, directly across from campus. Being so close to the built-in customer base of students fulfills the real estate credo of location, location, location, but it failed to provide for the equally important credo of adequate space, space, space (the East Lansing location is about half the size of a traditional National Coney). So a unique solution was drafted: streamline the menu and give the traditionally fullservice restaurant a twist with a “quick service” concept.

“Using quick service, we’re able to reduce the amount of food that needs to be stored, and it also speeds up the ordering process,” Egan said. “By focusing on the most popular items, we were able to create something new without a lot of overhead and something that will be easily duplicate-able.”

Among those items are the legendary Coney Hot Dog ($1.99), made with that full-flavored beanless chili, fresh chopped onions and mustard, served on grilled (not boiled) Dearborn hot dogs that have a distinctive snap with each bite. Trivia Fact 1: The chili is made by the National Chili Co., National Coney Island’s sister company in Detroit that pre-dates the franchise by one year. Trivia Fact 2: Contrary to their name, which implies a New York amusement park origin, Coney dogs are native to Detroit.

The most popular item on the menu, however, is a National Coney original: the Hani Special ($4.99), featuring golden fried chicken breast wrapped in a pita with lettuce, tomato, mayo and American and Swiss cheese. Of course, old stand-bys, such as the Chili & Cheese Fries ($2.79) and the Seasoned Waffle Fries ($1.99) are available, as is a unique selection of items priced at $1.29 or less.

“As we were tweaking the menu, we noticed that a lot of students and other customers were looking for items that were lower in price,” Egan said. “The Station Savers Menu has things like wing dings, mozzarella sticks and Station Burgers that you can get for about $1. We developed that by listening to our customers and tweaking the menu to give them what they wanted.”

Now let’s back up for a second: What was that about being “duplicate-able”?

“Yeah, we’re looking to expand around town,” Egan said. “Based on the good response we’ve gotten so far, we’d like to maybe open a full-service restaurant sometime soon.”

Now if we can just get a Detroit Bagel Factory out here, maybe I can get my dad to visit me in Lansing occasionally.

National Coney Station, 565 E.

Grand River Ave., East Lansing. (517) 351-2100. 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. Monday – Wednesday, 11 a.m. – 3 a.m. Thursday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. Sunday. (517) 351-2100.