James Coney Island dishing up 96 years of history this 4th of July holiday

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- In the early 1900s, two carpenter's sons named Tom and James Papadakis left the Greek town of Kastelli and headed for New York to build their version of the American dream.

"At the time, when they went through Ellis Island, they also saw Coney Island, New York, and saw the amusement park," said president of JCI Grill Darrin Straughan.

The Papadakis brothers eventually made their way to Houston, and like many Greek immigrants of the era, they borrowed the name 'Coney Island,' and decided to open a hot dog stand.

"The Greeks, really, if you want to think about it, invented the chili-style hot dog," said Straughan. "The Coney sauce is an old Greek-style sauce that used to have cinnamon, and all spice in it, but our guys here, the Papadakises, they took it out and added more Cayenne and Paprika and gave it more of a Southwestern flavor."

Nestled on the ground floor of downtown's Beatty-West building on Walker and Main, Houston's first 'James Coney Island' opened its doors in 1923.

But how did the brothers decide on using James' name instead of Tom?

"It could have been Tom's Coney Island because they actually flipped a coin, and James won," explained Straughan.

Selling bowls of 'secret recipe chili' for only 15 cents and hot dogs for a nickel, the restaurant became an instant success.

"It was important to bring (the customers) in and get them fed fast," said Straughan. "The men that ran the Walker street location were businessmen. They were serious. They weren't teenagers. They were Greek men, and they would point at you and ask you what you want, and if you didn't order it or if you stumbled for a minute, they went right to the next person in line."

In 1968, James Coney Island opened their second location near Town & Country Mall.

Over the next two decades, the booming family business would continue to build on their popularity.

By 1988, there were 14 James Coney Island restaurants selling more than 30,000 hot dogs to Houstonians a day.

"A lot of the Houstonians that grew up on Coney Island, they worked downtown in the 70's and 80's," said Straughan. "When the companies went out to suburbs, we had to expand and go out to the suburbs with Coney Island to reach them."

Straughan has found the right recipe, he says, and that's keep old traditions in place while introducing new ones to keep up with the changing times.

"When I joined in 1993, we only had one hot dog on the menu, that's the Coney. Well today, we have 13 hot dogs on the menu. Nothing about the food changed, and especially not our legacy items. The Coney's, the chili, the frito chili pies, the tamale plate, foot long, none of that changed. That's our legacy items. That's the thing that makes us who we are."

This fourth of July holiday, Houston's iconic JCI Grill is celebrating 96 years, at 17 locations, making it the Bayou City's fourth oldest running restaurant to stand the test of time.

"It's about memories," said Straughan. "So, we live on memories and we live off of memories, and now, we're just trying to create more memories."

Did someone say food?! Houston food lovers, unite!
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