A Publication of WTVP

102 and still going strong

by Phil Luciano | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Jesus Valdez and his mother Maria Valdez are owners of Coney Island with son Manny and daughter Mariah
Jesus Valdez and his mother Maria Valdez are owners of Coney Island with son Manny and daughter Mariah

Coney Island is the oldest eatery in Galesburg, and it’s still not sharing the recipe for its secret sauce

When Jesus Valdez took over Coney Island two decades ago, he knew the recipe for success.

Well, make that two recipes.

One would be the secret formula for the coney sauce that has brought in legions of eager customers for more than a century. The other would be the throwback atmosphere that looks virtually the same as it did on opening day, 1921.

“Customers said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t change our Coney Island,’” Valdez said with a smile. “We changed hardly anything.”

The old-time approach keeps people packing the place.

“You see families bringing in their young ones, generation to generation, Valdez said. “And it keeps being a tradition for some families coming in to have coney dogs.”

The key? ‘Saltsa kima’

Valdez, 48, had been managing a bar and grill when he bought the business 20 years ago, stepping into one of the richest restaurant traditions in Galesburg as well as America.

Coney Island, 77 S. Cherry St., is the oldest eatery in Galesburg. Like many of its kind, it was started by a pair of Greek brothers. According to Smithsonian Magazine, during a great wave of immigration from Greece and Macedonia at the beginning of the 20th century, many such newcomers started coney-dog shops in New York and elsewhere. To dress their dogs, they leaned on their homelands’ traditional “saltsa kima,” a spicy, tomato-based meat sauce.

And the layouts for the eateries looked similar, whether in Brooklyn or Galesburg.

“They all had the same setup: the grill in the front window and a long bar,” Valdez said.

His grill and 40-foot bar are originals, as are many of the decorations dotting the walls and ceiling, including signs for sodas, breads and gasoline, plus a pinball machine and gramophone. It’s like a wonderous time machine to visitors, especially the newbies.

“It is a lot of stuff,” Valdez said. “They take pictures and like to look around.”

The décor includes some of the scant few changes at Coney Island, thanks to the generosity of faithful customers.

“The reason why we have so much stuff is because people donate things to us,” Valdez said. “They say, ‘This (item) will look better here than in my basement.’ So, over the years, it’s been building up more and more.”

Word of mouth packs ‘em in

Valdez enjoys the interactions with patrons. Word of mouth brings in newcomers, such as those from nearby Knox College. Others find it on Google.

“You meet people from around the world,” said Valdez.

Others have been coming for years. Roby Souther routinely drives 30 minutes from his home in Kirkwood for the coney dogs. As an HVAC repairman, he first discovered the place when in town for a work project in the 1980s.

“I came here and got hooked: unique flavor (and) a good, satisfying meal for a working guy,” Souther said. “I’m retired now, but I still want to have one every chance I get.”

Souther said that, as far as he knows, no other coney dog compares.

“You can find ‘em on the East Coast,” he said. “(But) I don’t think you’ll find anyplace that does them around here besides these guys.”

Credit that to the heart of Coney Island: the sauce that, along with brown mustard, gets slathered atop the basic, $3 coney dog. The secret sauce recipe is on a tattered scrap of paper, signed by all seven owners over 102 years.

“We have it put away. We have a safe,” Valdez said. “We don’t keep it just laying around. That’s what we’re known for, our coney sauce.”

Selling dogs by the dozen (times 100)

That uniqueness is a big reason why Coney Island sells as many as 1,000 dogs a day.

“A lot of people claim they know the recipe,” Valdez said. “And they come in here and say, ‘Oh, I have the recipe for the Coney Island sauce. And then they mention some ingredients. And it’s nothing compared to how we make it.”

Valdez thinks there’s no other recipe like it.

“I’ve spent hours and hours online looking up different Coney Island recipes,” he said. “And I’ve never seen one that’s even close to ours at all.”

There’s one other secret to the eatery’s enduring success. Just as when Coney Island started, it is run by family, including Valdez’s daughter Mariha, 26; son Manny, 28; and mom Maria, 71.

The latter is responsible for one of the rare additions to the Coney Island menu. During a workday break a few years back, she and the family ate tamales she had made from a family recipe. Customers noticed, and the tamales became a Coney Island staple.

“I have to make a lot of them,” she said with a grin.

Meantime, the menu gets occasional tweaks. For instance, a new addition is the Mud Puppy, a dog topped with a thick cheese sauce originally created as a chip dip.

It’s been a solid seller. Yet despite the importance of the menu, Valdez points elsewhere for the continued success of Coney Island.

“What really makes this place survive and go is the community,” he said. “Without those guys, this place wouldn’t be here for a hundred years.”

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP. He can be reached at [email protected]