Business, New Economy

Q&A: Talking Coney dogs, television filming and competition with Grace Keros

Grace Keros love competition. Think you make a better hot dog than she does? Come by American Coney Island and prove it.

So how does she feel about Olga’s, Just Baked and other food shops opening in her neighborhood? You might think she’d feel threatened. But you couldn’t be more wrong.

Here is where Grace’s name is prophetic. The third-generation restaurateur told me this week over a cuppa Joe that she welcomes the newcomers to downtown Detroit. In an interview that was more gossip than grilling, the astonishingly energetic Keros dished about American’s upcoming 95th anniversary party, her next two television appearances and how she changed the business with the new Detroit Zoo location and her “Coney Kits,” a fund-raising effort turned profit center for the family-owned company.

As an aside, can you believe this Queen of Coneys only drinks three cups of coffee a day? Trust me, if you get a chance to exchange rapid-fire words with Keros, you’d think she has a constant IV of the stuff running through her veins. “I think I feed off of the energy here,” she said. “The more I get, the more I go.”

Q: Things have really changed around here. The décor may be the same (which she called “tastefully tacky”) but I remember a neighborhood constantly under construction.
A: I love it. There’s never a dull moment. There’s always something. But it’s good. Little challenges here and there. It’s fun. … For seven years we were like caged animals here. It started there (parking garage) as soon as that completed it started there. Then it started over there. And God help me. It was continual we didn’t have a break. It was not good.

Q: So I noticed someone just slipped you an Olga’s menu. Are you worried about having that restaurant on the next block (in the Compuware Building)?
A: It’s good. It’s all good. Any time something comes to Detroit it’s a positive thing. Definitely. Any time. The more people down here the better. And more and more people are coming here. It’s not just businesses. But you see people from the suburbs down here now. A lot. Not just a few scattered here and there. We’re definitely a destination. They make a point of coming here. They come here and then they tour around. There’s not one day that someone’s not here from somewhere. I see it every day. And the weekends? Craziness!

Q: I hear you’re going to be on “Food Paradise” in a month or so. And MSNBC just came calling. Coney dogs must make for some good television. How do you have so much confidence about how the shows will turn out?
A: I remember when we were filming with Michael Symon for the Food Channel’s “Food Feud.” They were here for three days. We filmed for 12 to 14 hours a day. Three full days! It was fun. … The same thing happened with “Food Wars.” The producers warned me, ‘We’re going to pick a winner.’ I said, ‘Good, come on.” I knew it all along. It just comes out. I can’t help it. It is what it is. … There’s a big difference between us and that place next door (Lafayette Coney Island). There’s obviously the food thing but it’s also the customer service. For me, it’s both of those things. And I can honestly tell you I think it’s the customer service more than the food. I know the product is good.

Q: How is business going at the Detroit Zoo? I know it’s your second year there.
A: We opened up again three weeks ago. It was the right combination – us and the zoo. It was perfect. We’re right next to the Dinotopia exhibit. What goes better with the Detroit Zoo than Detroit’s oldest and finest? It is huge. I cannot even begin to tell you. Kids love it. And they’re at the zoo and it’s a different atmosphere and they love it. I’m out there all the time.

Q: So what will happen next month for the big birthday anniversary?
A: We’re celebrating our 95th anniversary in May. So on May 23 we’ll have a big day – there will be 95 cent coneys for the lunch rush. And we want people to post their best American Coney memories on our Facebook page. There are so many stories out there. And we want to hear them.

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