Allia Mcdowell · David Greenberg · Denise Spann · Simone Fenzi

Coney Island (without the Coney Dog)

Michigan is known for a lot of things – the Great Lakes, the automotive industry, its iconic mitten shape… and Coney Island Restaurants. The history starts out in Detroit with American Coney Island in 1919, founded by William and Constantine Keros.

The two, however, had a falling out, prompting William to open up Lafayette Coney Island next door in 1936. The fierce rivalry between these two original Coneys, and thus their infamous Coney Dogs, still stands today. Since these two original Coney locations, more than 500 new establishments have popped up all across Michigan.

Michigan’s love of Coney dogs and Coney Island restaurants runs deep. Every Michigander has a favorite, and each Coney does something a little different to distinguish itself from the rest. Our team set out on the Great Coney Quest to evaluate what three different Coneys do to attract customers.

The three establishments our group went to were: Leo’s Coney Island in East Lansing, Sparty’s Coney Island in Lansing, and Lucas Coney Island in South Lyon.

Typically, visiting a Coney Island would mean eating a Coney dog. However, our team is made up of athletes and vegetarians, and therefore a Coney dog didn’t quite fit our diet. Instead, we looked at the options these Coneys offered to fulfill our needs, and who the restaurant’s target consumers really was.

Leo’s Coney Island:

Evaluated by: Denise Spann

leos 2
Photo Credit: Denise Spann

I’m putting on my food critic hat for this Leo’s Coney Island review. Since I’m from south Florida, I personally don’t fully understand the reputation of Coney Island and their infamous Coney dog. However, I do understand how some locations are better than others, whether it be because they’re open later or cook everything just right.

When I went to Leo’s last Thursday with my teammates it was my first time, but a couple of them had been to the location before. Being a student-athlete, I couldn’t personally order the Coney dog, because I have to watch what I eat. If you’re looking to eat on the healthier side at Leo’s their menu has a whole selection of soups, salads, and other vegetarian options in each of their listed categories. The main downside is that most of their healthier options are more expensive, and none of them fall under the specials that run from 12PM – 2PM Monday through Friday. There also aren’t any calorie listing under any of the food options, so if you’re a calorie counter, you’ll be doing plenty of math on your own.

Leo’s is open till 10PM every day, so the location just misses the completely drunk crowd at night on the weekends. They will catch the early morning hangovers, as Sunday morning and afternoon is when their busiest throughout the whole week. So, whether students and East Lansing residents are coming from church, or need to refuel after a long night out, Leo’s is there.

leos 1
Photo Credit: Denise Spann

They also have a Munchies section on the menu. During the week their busiest times is brunch to lunch, so students on Grand River can come in and grab a quick snack or sit for lunch between classes.

I did ask our waitress how big of a hit the Coney dogs are at the location, she said that the most popular items during the week are their Coney dogs and burgers, but on the weekends it’s breakfast. My teammates and I chose to skip the Coney and close in on an adolescent past time…breakfast for dinner. The food critic within me loved the breakfast. The pancakes taste like vanilla cake, which it was weird, but at the same time enticing. The breakfast pricing is higher than both IHOP and Dennys in perspective, but I did enjoy my meal and plan on dropping in on a Sunday morning in the near future.

Sparty’s Coney Island:

Evaluated by: Allia McDowell

Photo Credit: Allia McDowell

Sparty’s Coney Island surely takes advantage of its convenient location just outside of Michigan State University. As I walked in the doors, I was immediately greeted by a bustling environment of busy wait staff and hungry college kids. To my immediate left was a massive grill, separated from me by a metal counter which was now packed with plates of freshly-prepared coney dogs. Accompanied by a group of my friends, I took a seat around a table and began to flip through the menu. Almost immediately I was served a glass of water and a steaming-hot mug of coffee. I looked around to find the walls covered top-to-bottom with MSU-related memorabilia. There were signed team pictures, framed front-pages of local newspapers, and even vintage MSU imagery that would make anyone immediately aware of the restaurant’s long-standing connection to the university. It truly does earn its name as Sparty’s Coney, and the constant influx of MSU students only reaffirms that point.

Photo Credit: Allia McDowell

Flipping open the menu, I was instantly overwhelmed by the confusing mass of choices that it presented. With arrows pointing every which way, and thought bubbles floating next to each set of choices, I almost wanted to ask for the SparkNoted version. On top of that, the language used on the menu is truly classic-diner vernacular. Offering “Chili AM Fries” to add “Zest,” calling a half order of an omelet “Sport,” and listing “Moo Beer” (Which I discovered is root beer and chocolate milk) on their drink menu – they truly stay true to their image.

Sparty’s Special Omelette (Photo Credit: Allia McDowell)

I ordered two eggs over-medium with well-done American fries (read: hash browns) and wheat toast. The rest of my group collectively ordered 3 pancakes, one order of french toast, one order of biscuits and gravy, 3 orders of scrambled eggs, 3 orders of toast, 3 orders of American fries, and one Sparty’s Special Omelette (Which is described on the menus as “ 6, yes, 6 eggs… ham, cheese, pepper, onion, and tomato). Don’t worry, all 4 of my companions are on the rugby team and were practically eating for 10.

Photo Credit: Allia McDowell

Overall, the experience was great. The food was as to be expected – greasy and flavorful and cooked to perfection, and all-together the perfect college Sunday brunch. The atmosphere was fun, clean, and clearly college-oriented. The prices were reasonable, although I have been to Coneys with much cheaper breakfast offers. While my meal was nearly $10 here, it would have been $4 at Lucas Coney Island in South Lyon. Knowing the traffic that Sparty’s Coney gets due to its location, it clearly doesn’t lose business due to these higher prices. However, I think they could afford to lower their prices, especially when catering to college students on a budget.

Lucas Coney Island:

Evaluated by: Allia McDowell

South Lyon is my hometown, and I made a quick trip home this past weekend to visit my family. While I was there I met up with my grandparents for breakfast at Lucas Coney Island, our typical go-to breakfast spot, and by far my grandparents’ favorite Coney Island. All the wait staff knows my grandparents there, and the atmosphere is incredibly friendly.

Photo Credit: Allia McDowell

This Coney Island greatly differs from the aforementioned Leo’s and Sparty’s Coneys, as it draws a very different crowd. Because the other two surround MSU’s campus, they attract college students looking to grab a cheap, quick meal (especially for a late Sunday breakfast after a busy Saturday night). Lucas Coney Island draws the opposite crowd. From post-church seniors to families with small children enjoying an early lunch, to local high school athletes looking for a post-game bite – this Coney is much more family-oriented than the other two.

Upon entering the door, I found myself face-to-face with a kind waitress letting me know I can sit wherever I’d like. I comfortably slid into a booth, my grandparents filing in across from me. I again ordered a warm cup of coffee and noted that my mug here was much larger than the one I had at Sparty’s Coney. I swear, I couldn’t drink even half of it before someone came by to fill it back up.

This restaurant was surely much quieter than I had grown used to at those near MSU. While it is equally bustling and busy, the consumers are much more reserved and contained than are college students. The menu is straight-forward but has lots of options, and specifically lots of greek options. While many Coney has strayed away from serving classic Greek dishes, this one surely doesn’t. From spinach pie, to gyros, to saganaki (read: flaming cheese), you could come to Lucas to get just about anything you could want.

Photo Credit: Allia McDowell

As they are a dish I don’t often get, I ordered a serving of potato pancakes, which come with a cup of sour cream and applesauce. Like always, this dish didn’t disappoint. As a vegetarian, it is often hard for me to find things I can eat at restaurants. I am lucky to not have this issue at Coney Islands, and especially at Lucas Coney Island. My other go-to choice is their Greek salad, or their vegetarian pita – both of which I can also get at the Leo’s by MSU. I appreciate having options like this and am glad that Coney Island establishments have broadened their options beyond Coney dogs and fries (Although I do love a good serving of french fries, don’t get me wrong).

Overall, my experience at Lucas Coney Island was wonderful. I appreciated the friendliness of the wait staff, their consistent desire to refill my coffee, and the enjoyable, family-friendly atmosphere. Their hours reflect their expected customers, and their crowd is truly diverse as South Lyon is a small, developing town. I would recommend this Coney to anyone looking for a cheap, convenient meal in South Lyon with their family.

In Conclusion…

Throughout the research phase of the Coney Dog manhunt, it is quite evident that Coney Island is a staple of the state of Michigan. In our development stage, we tried to find the difference between an item that is so similar — yet so different — from its competitors. “The Coney Dog,” a hot dog with chili, mustard, and onions. We discovered how a restaurant with different owners, prices, and locations that specialize in one food can be similar yet different.

Leo’s Coney Island was the first one we looked at. One thing that was a major difference about Leo’s, is that it is right in the heart of downtown East Lansing, surrounded by college kids. One thing that college kids like to do is drink. This is why it was surprising to our group that Leo’s closes at 10 p.m. If a place like Leo was open late until 1 or 2 a.m., then they would make a lot more money based on their prime location just down the street from some of East Lansing’s most popular bars.

Location is one thing that we realized has a lot to do with the restaurant business, especially Coney Island. Lucas Coney Island in South Lyon, Michigan has a different feel to it because its location isn’t in a college town, it’s in a residential area. The staff at the restaurant are more welcoming to the customers because they tend to be an older crowd with families. A place like that has a better business model that is more appealing to the customers of their area. The third place that was checked out was Sparty’s Coney Island, just outside of the Michigan State campus. This restaurant thrived off of its connection to MSU as well as its dedication to maintaining a classic diner feel.

As mentioned before the Coney Island is a staple of Michigan restaurants. They are all over the place, and a great, family-friendly spot, for some good ole’ fashion greasy food.

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