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The frank approach

For 80 years, the crew at Coney Island Grill hasn’t minced words with customers. It’s still the perfect place to grab a hot dog with ketchup and a side of sass.

By JOHN BARRY, Deputy Floridian Editor
Published June 3, 2006

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[Times photo: Bob Croslin]
Gail Kelley talks with a regular at Coney Island Grill. Kelley started serving at the shop 14 years ago after waiting on owner Hank Barlas at another restaurant.
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[Times files]
Waitress Gail Kelley grabs four loaded dogs and the check from the counter on her way to a table during the lunch rush at the Coney Island Grill in this 1998 photo.
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ST. PETERSBURG — A Greek chorus of comedians has occupied the brown vinyl counter stools at Coney Island Grill almost as long as the 80 years Coney Island Grill has existed. The chorus is very old now, but was young when the men first claimed their stools. There’s snow on the roof but heat in the chimney. They don’t miss a thing. Not one glorious moment of daily hot dog drama. 

Like the time Gov. Bob Graham showed up with an entourage and took a booth in the back. Dot Harding, a now-retired Coney Island waitress for 17 years, was in charge of breaking in newcomers. She walked over with her order pad. 

“I’ll have a hot dog,” Graham said, innocently.  n  “I don’t serve one hot dog to a man,” Dot told him. 

“You mean I have to eat two?” he asked, looking surprised. “What if I don’t like them?” 

Dot gave him a tart look. “You don’t have to eat them if you don’t like them,” she said. “But if you order them, you have to pay for them.” 

The governor of Florida ate both hot dogs.

Ken Ward was 32 (“right out of kindergarten,” he says) when he grabbed the stool closest to the cash register counter. He is 90 now. He still claims that stool every weekday at 2 p.m. With the cash register on his right, “there’s only two ways to fall off my stool,” he says, “backward or to the left.”

He orders one cup of coffee every day, but not so many hot dogs anymore.Ward knew Pete Barlas, the Greek who opened Coney Island at 250  Ninth St. N in 1926, when hot dogs cost a nickel. Ward was there when the fryer caught fire and Pete chucked it out, meaning that Coney Island would never again offer french fries. He was there when blacks bought hot dogs through a Jim Crow sidewalk window, like they did at most cafes in segregated St. Petersburg. The window is long sealed, and Ninth Street now goes by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

“Pete was a cantankerous old man,” Ward says. “One day this young fella next to me ordered a ham and cheese sandwich. He told Pete he only wanted white lettuce and he should cut the bread straight across, not diagonally.
“The old man made the sandwich, sliced it straight across and wrapped it up. Then he threw it in the waste basket. He told the young fella, 'I don’t need you to tell me how to make a sandwich.’ ”

From his perch near the door, Ward offered words of advice to such customers as they hastily departed: “If you didn’t want to be insulted, you shouldn’t have come in here.”

Ward remembers when Pete first posted his infamous ketchup notice on the menu board: a 5-cent extra charge for anyone who ordered ketchup on their chili dog. “It’s your hot dog,” Pete explained, “but if you want to f--- it up, you’ll have to pay for it.”

***

Hank Barlas, son of Pete, is grouchy during one recent lunch hour. Grouchier, possibly, than his usual grouchiness. He joins the old men at the counter and sings the blues. One of them, Richard Hicks, 67, a regular since age 8, says, “Hank’s a charming personality,” and gets a big laugh.

Jerry Lovely, Hank’s manager, has planned an 80th anniversary celebration, during which hot dogs and sodas will be sold at their 1926 prices: 5 cents apiece. Hank says it just means more onion-cutting and a bill for maybe 1,200 dogs.

He’s burned out. He’s 70. “I don’t recommend getting old,” he says. His dad is gone, and his brother George died last year. George left a morass of investments that Hank knew nothing about. “He didn’t tell me anything he was doing for the last five years,” Hank says.

The family business rests squarely on Hank’s shoulders now. He’s tired of coming in at 7 and cutting onions. He has even finally let Lovely, his manager of 24 years, in on “most of” the chili recipe, a family secret for all these eight decades.

Hank is occupying a stool between Dot, who’s visiting, and Gail Kelley, his Mae West waitress who has barbed wire tattooed around her  biceps and is now in charge of breaking in newcomers. Hank contemplates what makes a great Coney Island waitress. “How would I know? I never had one,” he says.

“A great waitress is someone who can put up with Hank,” Gail shoots back.

Hank met Gail when she waited on him at the old Family Place on 16th Street. “I was going through a divorce and wanted a change,” she says. Hank asked her to come work for him. That was 14 years ago.

At Coney, Gail fell under Dot’s tutelage and learned the mysteries of Coney Island’s unique ambience. There was the hapless customer who Dot told: “Shut up, you’ll eat what I tell you to.”

There were the customers who made the mistake of ordering a hamburger on a Tuesday. Dot had decided no one could have a hamburger on Tuesdays. That was Hank’s day behind the grill. He complained about cooking them.
“I didn’t want to listen to him,” she says.

There were the famous “lovebirds,” a young couple that lingered long after consuming their hot dogs, cooing and holding hands. Dot stood over them, eyes narrowed. “I threw a wet dish towel on their table.” The man stood up, outraged, hurled the towel on the floor, and the two stormed out, never to return.

“They needed a motel,” Dot said.

***

Nothing escapes the notice of the counter comedians.

They now hear that Hank doesn’t feel so well, that he’s worried about his health.

His old counter pals all look pretty robust. Does a Coney Island dog a day indeed keep the doctor away? Deadpan, Richard Hicks, the 67-year-old, replies: “If you eat one of these things every day for 100 years, you live to be 100.”

Hank owns most of the buildings on the block in a part of town rapidly regentrifying. Hank’s son, Peter, lives in Tampa. He is not a Coney Island regular.

The comedians cast a sentimental vote for  Lovely, Coney Island’s long-suffering manager, to keep it going, no matter what.

“There’s no place like this place anywhere near this place, so this must be the place,”  Ward says.
But with the 80th anniversary celebration bearing down on him, Hank issues a template response for every question about Coney Island’s future: “I don’t know. My problem is I have no imagination.”

Fred Sherman, 71, hears all this. He’s been a regular diner since the mid 1940s. He still comes in at least once a week for breakfast, always getting the egg and cheese sandwich. From his counter perch, he surveys all of Coney Island’s unchanging elements that remain dear.

In front of him is the big double-door General Electric refrigerator. That was here way back, along with the stainless steel wall panels and the big green Hamilton Beach mixers for the milkshakes (frothy nectar of gods). Above the panels, the long white menu board. There has never been another. The counter’s Formica top? Sherman has rested his elbows on it for 50 years.

“This is — what you call it? — an icon establishment,” Sherman says. “The only thing that has changed is we’ve all gotten older.

“It’s inevitable that someday Coney Island will close. It will be a sad day, really. The place stays the same. We just get older.”

John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.

[Last modified June 3, 2006, 17:27:04]


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