A player in Detroit’s storied coney history may be turning a new chapter, but a 100-year-old family chili recipe will live on into the future.
Red Hots Coney Island at Victor and Woodward in Highland Park has survived many ups and downs, including depressions and recessions, the city’s highs and lows, and yes, even the pandemic. Owner Richard Harlan’s great uncle, a Greek immigrant who worked for Ford Motor Co., founded the restaurant and the chili recipe in 1921. Harlan himself has been working there since he was a teenager in the late 1960s.
Now, he and his wife, Carol, are getting ready to retire after a long career in the business, buoyed by generations of customers that are like family. But first, they’ll celebrate with a big 100th anniversary bash at the Highland Park restaurant on June 26.
Harlan said part of the reason the restaurant has been able to last so long is the customers.
“Because families have brought their families in, and it’s been a continuation of that,” he said. “I have many, many families that are third and fourth generation that still come into the restaurant.”
He also credits Carol, who stepped in as a server when they lost one and he needed some help for a few weeks. That was 20 years ago, and she’s been helping serve coney dogs, sliders, chili fries and loose burgers ever since.
Their daughter Christina Coden will keep the chili sauce alive in retail form. After the party on June 26, Coden and her dad will start shopping the 16-ounce refrigerated tubs of all-natural Red Hots Coney Sauce to local grocers. They’ve started selling bricks of the sauce — which can be used on hot dogs, nachos, fries or just eaten by the bowl — to local restaurants, too.
Red Hots Chili Sauce uses real onions and garlic instead of powders, all ground chuck (no beef hearts) and there are no preservatives. Because of a high-pressure packaging process, the refrigerated product will have a shelf life of around 10-12 months.
Carol said it was important for Christina, who is the only other person besides Richard who even knows the recipe, to keep the chili going after they retire, and took it upon herself to make the move to retail.
“She knew one day that we would be closing the restaurant because it’s just too hard for Rich and I,” said Carol. “It was very important for Christina to have the chili recipe carry on.”
As for the last day of business for Red Hots Coney Island, the Harlans are eyeing late July, but nothing is set in stone yet. Richard says if he can find a buyer that wants to keep the name Red Hots, they have to serve their chili.
“I’m willing to work with a new owner that comes in, I won’t walk off and leave them dry. I’ll stay and introduce him to customers so they’ll keep coming back,” said Richard Harlan, who is nearing 70 years old. “It’s hard for me to say I want to retire, it’s just it’s time.”
“We’re definitely going out on our terms, not because of a pandemic,” adds Carol. “We just kept going. If we shut the doors it’s on our terms, not because a pandemic shut us down.”
The 100th anniversary celebration is set for 11 a.m.-4 p.m. June 26. Ten bucks gets you all the coneys, Better Made chips and Vernors (or other pop) that you like. Commemorative T-shirts and beer will also be for sale at the tented, outdoor party.
“It’s like a celebration” says Richard. “We’ve got people coming in from Florida, California and other states … it’s for all the old-timers to come in and kibbutz about the old days.”
Red Hots Coney Island is open 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tues.-Sat. at 12 Victor in Highland Park. Call (313) 868-0766 or visit redhotsconeyisland.com. Follow the restaurant on Facebook at facebook.com/redhots1921.
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com