An annual All-American display of gluttony happens every July 4th, as it has since the 1970s, at the iconic Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on Brooklyn’s Coney Island. This paradigmatic and patriotic event – an event so patriotic that its attendance rate is higher than that of the July 4th celebration at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia – has become the poster child for summer days and an American obsession with hot dogs.
The hot dog, a food associated mostly with Brooklyn’s Coney Island, is as American as apple pie and has been celebrated as such since the beginning of time. However, if you know your hot dog history – which we imagine every foodie does – then you’ll know that the Coney Island hot dog is of a much different background. As we celebrate George’s Coney Island 100th year anniversary, we want to pay homage to its origins, its entrepreneurial impact on the American way and its undeniable flavors that makes us all crave hot dogs during the summer days.
In New York, the Coney Island hot dog is synonymous with Nathan’s Hot Dogs on Coney Island while in Detroit, it stands for the rivalry of the Kero’s brothers and while the debate over who makes the best Coney Island hot dog is always on the hot topic, the truth of its origins is clear.
Thanks to the immigrants of Northern and Eastern Europe, the Coney Island hot dog is a love story only Ellis Island can produce.
Spread across the eastern U.S by Greek and Macedonia immigrants in the 1900s, the Coney Dog is a hot dog smothered in chili or ground beef, and topped with mustard and onions. This wave of Coney Dogs was part of the Greek migration to the U.S – 343,000 people between 1900 and 1919 – who fled the economic desolation caused by Greece’s 1893 bankruptcy and crash in the price currants. “Many of them passed through New York’s Ellis Island and heard about or visited Coney Island, later borrowing this name for their hot dogs, according to one legend,” wrote Katherine Yung and Joe Grimm in their 2012 book Coney Detroit.
The Greek and Macedonians likely hit upon the idea of dressing hot dogs in variations on saltsa kima – a spicy tomato-based meat sauce. This variation became such a popular contribution to the American way that it is said that Franklin D. Roosevelt famously served Nathan’s Coney Island dogs at a 1936 lawn party for England’s royal family.
In 1918, at the height of the Coney Dog wave, the trend made its way to Worcester by yet another Greek, entrepreneurial duo; Catherine and George Tsagarelis. According to George’s Coney Island history timeline, the Tsagarelis couple purchased the lunch counter located on Southbridge Street and quickly focused on “the humble wiener as their main menu item.” In 1938, they installed the iconic neon, George’s Coney Island sign and the rest is history.
Over the years, the taste of the Coney Dog has been tried by the food community as a favorite food of the past but George’s Coney Island has stood strong throughout the evolution of the American palate and maintains its relevance.
“The driving force behind the longevity of Coney Island is the loyal support of our customers. Certainly, our love of feeding people over the course of three generations, our dedication to the business and hard work is part of it,” said Kathy Tsandikos, the granddaughter of the original owners, Catherine and George. While Tsandikos pays tribute to the customers for their success over the last century, it is hard not to include the “between-wars ambiance of the building. The unapologetically splendiferous sign and the secret chili sauce,” as the foundations of the coney dog success. For 100 years, George’s Coney Island has created a sense of community in Worcester and continues to do so as the food landscape of Worcester evolves.
“People come in all the time and tell me stories. They share how they used to come in with their parents who might no longer be with us and now they sit at the same booth, while others bring their kids and find their names carved in a booth and reminisce with their family,” said Tsandikos. “To be able to share in people’s lives and stories and do what I love to do every day is how I define our success.”
So, whether you’re partial to the New York or Detroit version of the dog, for an eatery to celebrate 100 years, we know that Massachusetts is partial to George’s.