St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman, via official proclamation, declared Nov. 19, 2016 Coney Island Day. The occasion was the 90th anniversary of Coney Island Sandwich Shop, the oldest family-operated restaurant in the city.
Soon enough, Coney Island will be 100 years old. Although it has, of course, been modernized, retro-fitted and otherwise gussied up, the little storefront retains its early-to-mid 20th Century charm. With a seating capacity of just 48 (20 counter stools and seven booths that sit four each), Coney Island still specializes in its namesake hot dogs, dressed with chili meat if you so desire (that’s what’s known colloquially as a “Coney Island dog”), and several more simple, no-frills sandwiches from which to choose. And the best chocolate milk shakes (prepared in a vintage Hamilton Beach mixing machine) in town.
“Most of our clientele is by word of mouth,” says manager Gail Kelley, who’s been at Coney Island for 27 years. “It’s inherited down through families. We’ve got five or six generations of family members that have been coming here, because their parents came here, or their grandparents came here.”
Although the neighborhood has lost much of the vitality of its heyday, Coney Island continues to thrive.
Panagiotio Hilipholus was a farmer’s son who left his native Greece for the United States in 1918. He was 24 when he set up shop in St. Petersburg, after a few wandering years in New England, where he worked as a grocer and a short-order cook. In 1926 Hilipholus – his name anglicized to Peter H. Barlas – rented a small storefront on red-bricked 9th Street North, between 2nd and 3rd Avenue, on the ground floor of the Baker Hotel.
He called his lunch counter the Coney Island Grill; his specialty was the chili dog, made in the original, bean-free Michigan fashion but utilizing a special recipe he never divulged to anyone outside the family. For years, he also ran a vegetable-delivery service out of his truck. “My dad was a real go-getter,” recalls Peter’s son, Hank, 83. “He really scrambled for the buck.”
In 1930, he officially became a United States citizen.
Peter Barlas’ nickel dogs kept folks going during the Great Depression. He’d allow construction workers, crews from burgeoning downtown, from Coquina Key and even the Don CeSar to run tabs until they got paid. When the landlord raised his rent in 1950, Barlas bought the empty place next door and moved Coney Island over. When the Baker Hotel and the adjacent Brass Rail Bar were demolished, Barlas was able to buy that property, too. Today, it’s the Coney Island parking lot.
The original St. Petersburg fire station was across the street; later, the city’s first Sears and Roebuck.
Barlas, who spoke in heavily-accented English, was a colorful character, sharp-tongued and famously opinionated. He enjoyed playing the pups at Derby Lane and rarely declined a wager; he was a regular at the poker games held at the big Northeast home of drugstore king Doc Webb. There was usually a game in the back room at Coney Island.
For many years, he and his customers challenged each other “double or nothing”; the old man would toss a coin, and if the customer called it correctly, lunch was free. If they lost, they had to pay twice the amount on the check.
“I never refuse,” he told the Evening Independent. “In a year’s time, I usually come out ahead.”
In an attempt to add French fries to his admittedly simple menu, Barlas once sprung for a deep fryer. But he never could get it to work right, and after several potentially-disastrous fires, he ripped the damn thing off the counter and chucked it out the back door.
After their father died in 1984, Hank and his brother George took over.
“George was completely opposite from Hank; he was like a little teddy bear,” remembers Kelley. “He would stay all hours of the day and night, cleaning. Always cleaning.”
George, his brother says, “felt guilty my dad was working too hard. He used to sell cars at Adcock Buick, right up on 9th Street. He tried to do both, but he couldn’t. He kept oversleeping because he’d be here in the restaurant late.”
(Hank says he didn’t share his brother’s guilt. “I couldn’t find a job any place else,” he laughs. “And I got too old to get hired.”)
The Barlas Brothers, remembers Kelley, were as popular as the chili dogs. George liked to sing, and quack like the duck on the Aflac insurance commercials. “People used to come in here just to hear them bicker back and forth,” Kelley recalled. “Hank would work the grill, and George would be making hot dogs. And they just went back and forth, antagonizing each other like crazy. There was always a show here.”
The servers, too, had fans. “Dottie and Barbara were here for years,” Kelley says. “And Dottie was … well, you either loved her or you hated her. Somebody’d come in here and order one hot dog, she’d say ‘You’re not getting one hot dog. You get two hot dogs or you don’t get any, and you’re not coming back.’
“Back in the day, you could do that and get away with it. But you couldn’t get away with it now.”
Employees tend to be the loyal sort. Anna Johnson, who passed away at age 81, in 1982, was a Coney Island waitress for two full decades.
Then there was dishwasher Danny Murphy, who stayed for 26 years. “He did great work, showed up every day and pretty much kept to himself,” according to Kelley.
All the customers knew Danny, who always wore red, white and blue, and painted his decked-out bicycles with bright colors and hot-rod motorcycle designs. He’d lock them up out front and come in to work.
He was a big Elvis Presley fan, too. When Danny was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, Coney Island employees, and customers, and members of the community raised enough money to send him to Graceland, Presley’s palatial home and museum, in Memphis. “Kind of a Make-a-Wish thing for adults,” Kelley said. “But not Make-a-Wish, because they only do that for children.”
All-Star Limousine drove him to the airport; he was picked up in a limo, too, and upgraded to the Elvis Presley Suite in one of the city’s swankiest hotels. And treated like a king in the King’s own castle. “So he got the whole nine yards,” Kelley recalls with a wistful smile.
Danny died a year later, at the age of 46.
Except for the occasional back-of-the-catalog newsprint coupon, Coney Island has never advertised – at least not in the traditional ways. “During the Festival of States Parade, and the Fourth of July Parade, George would always fly a plane with a banner behind it,” Kelley says. “And it would bring in crazy business. We’d have to run three waitresses just to keep up. Everybody would see the banners and they’d come in for their chili dogs.”
The restaurant does not have a website.
After George’s death in 2005, full ownership of Coney Island passed to Hank Barlas. He stops by a few mornings every week – to chat with Gail, or the others on the crew, and treat himself to a sandwich and a cup of coffee.
He’s not sure what’ll happen to Coney Island as it approaches its centennial. His own son “doesn’t want anything to do with retail,” Barlas says – and besides, he’s a vegetarian.
But the surviving son of Panagiotio Hilipholus, immigrant, restaurateur and local legend, has no regrets. “I wish I’d done something and made a million dollars years ago,” Hank laughs. “When it was worth a million dollars.”