An auto worker, a rabbi, and a surgeon walk into a restaurant. There’s no punchline, but a spirited discussion on the Tigers, healthcare, the surrounding neighborhood, and even race ensues. This is a daily occurrence at Red Hots Coney Island in Highland Park, a diner chock-full of history and stories to last a lifetime.
Red Hots has been a fixture in Highland Park for almost 100 years. The classic diner has gone through its ups and downs, but still retains a loyal following and a chili recipe to die for (more about that later). If you aren’t familiar with the community, just turn to the local on the stool next to you and ask, they are happy to fill you in.
After operating a successful restaurant for so long, owners Richard and Carol Harlan have not only heard tens of thousands of stories, they’ve learned a lot of life lessons along the way.
Talk to strangers
During our visit, a local named Roland introduced himself and became an integral part of our experience, exemplifying the lost art of talking to your neighbors. A longtime customer turned friend of the Red Hots family, Roland exemplified the spirit of open conversation that pervades the restaurant. The diversity of patrons makes it easy to get a different perspective on everything from politics to sports, and the only way to find common ground or get another opinion is to converse. Regulars have no problem joining you at your table to find out what makes you tick, and invite you into their family.
Fight for what you love
Over the years, the Harlans have been committed to carrying on the family legacy while embracing how important the restaurant is to the community. They’ve had to adjust to rules and regulations over the years, as well as rising food costs, but their passion has always propelled them forward.
You can tell that the Harlans have their hearts in the business, evident in their mom-and-pop service and commitment to quality. Even when Red Hots was in dire straits in the early 2000’s, they fought to keep it going. They once had a chance to sell the store and retire, but they couldn’t bear the thought of leaving their loyal customers, and backed out at the last minute.
Be nice to people
The key to building a loyal following has been simple: treat people the way you want to be treated. “The nicer you treat people, the nicer they’ll treat you,” notes Richard. “Being friendly to a customer who’s having a bad day can turn their day around. We have everyone from millionaires to the average Joe, every day. We talk to them all. We love them all. It’s what makes this place special.”
Commit to quality
To survive nearly 100 years, providing a delicious Coney dog while managing food costs can be challenging. Red Hots is proud to serve the same quality ingredients from day one, never sacrificing what made them famous to save a buck. It’s a noble stance in such a competitive industry. Richard makes the trek to Eastern Market because it is less expensive than food delivery and yields a better product. He is willing to take the extra steps to serve quality food at a reasonable price.
Leave a legacy
Despite an aesthetic remodeling via Ty Pennington’s American Diner Revival, Red Hots Coney Island has served the same chili recipe since 1921. When it tastes so damn good, why would you change it? There is only one living human that knows the recipe: Richard. When he had to undergo major knee surgery, he gave his wife a dummy recipe because he wasn’t ready to call it in. For prosperity reasons, there are some family members and regulars against this decision!
Not only did we have a laugh when we learned about how the family recipe is under lock and key, we learned some valuable insight from a Coney legend. According to the Harlans, the mustard should go under the chili to make a true Coney dog. Why? Richard’s theory is that when the mustard is on top, it detracts from the flavor of the chili.
It was refreshing to visit a place like Red Hots Coney Island that staunchly embraces what made Detroit great in the first place. Everyone is friends, everyone is welcome, and cellphones are discouraged because they distract from engaging in the trash talking family you always wanted to be a part of.
Now that we’ve established Red Hots Coney Island’s home in the city’s lore, let’s eat!