Metro Detroit loves its coney islands, from the famous pair downtown to the mall staples to suburban startups.
Among the oldest is Red Hots Coney Island in Highland Park, where owner Richard Harlan — part of the third generation in the family business — dishes out the same recipe that customers found in the same storefront just after World War I.
The restaurant is one of Highland Park’s few remaining independent restaurants, located midway between Oakland County’s wealth and Midtown Detroit’s resurgence.
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But when Red Hots opened, Highland Park was a boom town. It was a year after the latest census had recorded an astonishing 1,081 percent population growth in the city where Henry Ford started his Model T assembly line in 1913.
During the first several decades the Ford employees were a big part of its success. Harlan recalls how the workers had short breaks and needed fast food; some even saved enough time eating their coney dogs that they could stop at the bar across the street on their way back to the plant.
“They would come flying over here in the mornings,” Harlan told MLive . “It its heyday, there were 60,000 people working here.”
Today, the city is home to just 25 percent of the number of people who’d rushed to be a part of Highland Park’s growth alongside the automotive industry. Many are poor; the median household income in 2010 was $20,205.
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The decline of Highland Park began as Ford reduced the number of cars it produced in the city in the 1950s, ending production in 1973. A decade later, Chrysler moved its headquarters.
Yet from the opening by Greek immigrants Thomas and Kalliopi Nickolson through a few transitions, Red Hots stayed in the city — and remained family owned. The Nickolsons turned it over to a cousin; eventually Harlan’s parents bought it.
Customers stayed loyal, and coney islands remained a big part of the region’s restaurant scene.
“Nowhere in the world is as crazy about coney dogs as metro Detroit,” wrote Joe Grimm in his book with Katherine Yung, “Coney Detroit.”
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City workers ate at Red Hots. City jail inmates did, too, thanks to an agreement to send food to the police department. Celebrities who’ve stopped by include Joe DiMaggio, Jerry Lewis and Muhammad Ali.
By 1967, 13-year-old Richard started his role in the restaurant, serving coffee and refilling the soda machine. His parents expanded the seating area to include four booths and a few tables along with the counter. They even added French fries to the menu — a move that meant offering customers ketchup for the first time.
In those days, Harlan recalls, the hot dogs sold for about a quarter; loose burgers were 5 cents more. Cigarettes cost 24 cents, and the pack would have a penny taped to the package as change.
In part because of Red Hots, Harlan felt connected to Highland Park, making friends there, hanging out and meeting his wife, Carol, who grew up a half-mile north on Woodward on Pilgrim.
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Harlan bought Red Hots in 1985. “I always wanted it,” he recalled. “But I never knew I’d own it.”
The work never lets up. The restaurant is open six days a week, and Harlan is there seven. He looks back and recalls one vacation in 40 years. “I’m always working.”
He’s tried a few more things, expanding the menu to two boards above the grill. A small case holds bottled beer. Sliders now can be ordered. But don’t look for salads.
“It didn’t work out,” Harlan said. And he adds that neither desserts nor fish and chips sold fast enough to ensure the food was fresh.
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But one unique item survives — it’s a mixture of beans, hamburger, chili and onions that once was named after Harry. Then Vince. As of four years ago, it’s the Milton Special.
Customers travel miles to Red Hots, thanks to notoriety following its makeover in 2015 by the Food Network on “American Diner Revival.”
But they also walk in, or drive a short distance from homes in Highland Park and Detroit.
Some of them have been making the trek for longer than Harlan’s been alive.
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“I’m proud of this establishment,” said William Clark, 80, as he was taking his favorite carryout — chili with beans and a hot dog — from the counter on a sunny fall day.
Clark moved to the area as a three-year-old, when his family headed north from Memphis, Tennessee. He’s been a “pretty regular” customer since World War II and got to know each family generation who operated it.
Clark was with Darell Ruffin, who’s been a customer since he was 10.
“It’s my favorite place,” he said.
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Harlan rode out the decline of Highland Park, where the city and schools both suffered repeated financial crises. Now he sees attempts at growth, including newer retail stores — like an Aldi — on Woodward Avenue.
Business, he said, was “very, very, very poor for the last 10 years or so.”
At one point, he was ready to sell.
“Then I started feeling really bad about the people around here,” he said, saying he’d miss his regular customers. “All the people know me really well.”
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When the buyer started talking installment payment, the deal was off. And Harlan stayed behind the counter at Red Hots, working with Carol and another person or two.
The makeover in 2015 came at a good time. It refreshed the little restaurant and revived Harlan’s business, along with his enthusiasm. He sees the nearby transitions, like new stores and the sale of the long-time bakery to the east, and thinks there’s room for growth. Harlan is partnering in remaking an adjoining building, and looks at Red Hots as still viable.
It’s unclear whether a fourth family generation will take it over in coming years, just as it’s undetermined whether Detroit’s resurgence will fuel a turnaround in Highland Park.
Harlan said he’ll stick with his basic business philosophy.
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“Put out a decent product. Stay kind of clean. You don’t have to overprice everybody,” he said. “You’ll be OK.”
And as for the city, Harland said Red Hots lasted 96 years there and is aiming for 100. Highland Park has its troubles, but its home. Harland wants people to know: “It’s not as bad as people think it is.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.