Young kids were dancing The Charleston, Calvin Coolidge became the 30th president of the United States, baseball sensation Babe Ruth hit two home runs in a World Series Game and in downtown Houston, Texas, two Greek immigrant brothers opened a hot dog stand that would make its own claim to history and stand the test of time. That hot dog stand has become a Houston tradition and it takes any native Houstonian all of about three seconds to say where the best hot dog in town can still be found - at “James Coney Island”.
The two brothers - Tom and James Papadakis, sons of a carpenter, were born in Kastelli Gravias, Greece. Both immigrated to New York in the early 1900’s, eventually making their way to Houston. With just $75 in his pocket and a third grade education, Tom convinced his brother James to build their version of the American Dream ... and thus it began.
A flip of the coin decided whose name would grace the sign of the favorite Houston eatery and hence, “James” won the toss. Nestled on the ground floor of the Beatty-West Building on Walker and Main in downtown Houston, the first James Coney Island opened its doors in 1923 and became an instant success selling a variety of sandwiches including a popular “goose liver and Roquefort combination”, bowls of “secret-recipe” chili for only $.15 and hot dogs for just a nickel. Paperboy to multi-millionaires alike lined up day-after-day to partake in the on-going chaotic environment of loud noise, constant crowds and the frantic pace that became part of the famous environment of the popular eatery.
With more than its fair share of customers daily to watch “the show”, the seams of the business overflowed the stools, chairs, tables and aisle ways; and as a result, small, old wooden school desks were brought in to take care of the overflow. All this just to indulge in America’s newest sandwich sensation, the “Coney Island” - a secret-recipe wiener snuggled in between a custom-made, hand-sliced steamed bun, server “the original way” with mustard, chili sauce and onions. As one customer put it, “It’s like a little piece of heaven...the bun is as soft as angel food, the onions are a fluffy as a cloud and the whole thing just melts in your mouth.”
The wooden desks became a mainstay and so did the fans...and outside the window of the popular eatery, life in the city and the world carried on. And on, and on and on. From 1923 to 1990, history was made and a modernization changed most of what one could see outside the window facing Main Street, but inside the gray, dark walls of that original location, (other than a few prices increases) things just pretty much stayed the same for decades - the chili, the hot dogs, in fact, even most of the employees.
Native Houstonians say that the shabbiness of the place just added character to the old eatery and that was all part of the magic - and they wouldn’t change a thing - in fact, they didn’t for years.
After close to 40 years of single-unit success, at the insistence of their sons, Tom and James “reluctantly” agreed to open their second location near Town & Country Mall in 1968. (Legend has it, the original owners were resistant to “anything” new to the business that was different from the original location. At least one son for certain shared in their resistance. Once, a huge argument ensued over son-in-law Louis’ desire to introduce straws for sodas and ketchup for french fries!) But as both brothers approached the age of 70, the two sons of Tom - Jimmy and Peter, and brother-in-law, Louis Servos - became actively involved in all aspects of the family business. After James passed in 1968 at age 75, and Tom in 1974 at age 76, the sons were able to ease naturally into their new roles keeping old traditions solid while introducing news ones to keep up with the changing times.
By 1978, the “sons” had grown the business to seven units including the “still-existing” locations of Gulfgate and another location downtown on Travis. While never quite able to match the “magic” of the original location on Walker & Main Street, the multi-unit chain still thrived in popularity and continued to build on their success with the addition of seven more James Coney Island restaurants. By 1988, with 14 restaurants including locations at Northline, I-10 East, Edgebrook and 1960 at I-45, the “unpretentious” chain had become a multi-million dollar operation selling over 30,000 hot dogs every day!
During the economic decline of the eighties, the chain experienced financial difficulties due to unrelated business investments. Eventually, the family sold its interest to six local investors in 1990, all Houstonians who themselves shared fond love and admiration for James Coney Island and “shivered” at the thought of the chain being purchased by an “outside” investment group for fear of losing the city’s finest hot-dog eatery. The chain has remained privately-held and operated for the past 15 years. Under the direction of President Darrin Straughan since 1994, the company experienced new financial success and enjoyed a revitalization phase of excitement. Straughan’s leadership helped to turn the floundering chain back into the success it enjoyed during prior years and currently James Coney Island stands strong with 21 successful locations with intentions to build several more in the Houston market. Future plans include expansion to other major Texas cities including Dallas, Austin and San Antonio.
What’s changed at James Coney Island over the year? Well, customers can’t buy a hot dog for a nickel or a bowl of chili for fifteen cents, nor can they ride the bus downtown for a quarter, see their favorite movie at The Majestic Theater and still have a few pennies left for a coney! But over 80 years later, James Coney Island is stronger than ever and exceeds the vision that its Greek founders ever imagined. With a bit more hot dog variety than the original coney dog on its menu, JCI now features several including authentic Chicago style dog, New York style dog and Polish Sausage! Striving to offer service “above and beyond” the average “quick-service” dining establishments and with product offered at reasonable prices without compromising the standards of the company itself on, the chain continues to enjoy success. Vowing to stay true to the roots that Tom and James Papadakis founded...the chili recipe remains the 1923 original and so do the ingredients in the custom-made wiener of the “original” coney. Some people say they taste “different”, but this group knows better than to mess with the mainstay of what’s kept them successful all these years - they’re the original recipes - and while life may change and history carries on outside that window on “Main Street”, some things, like original secret family recipes, never ever will!