Roseville — Tom Giftos was just a newborn when his father’s first Coney Island restaurant at Macomb Mall in Roseville became a popular regional destination.
The 40-seat restaurant, opened in 1965 at the height of the regional shopping mall center craze, often had a line out the door. Giftos’ father, James, advertised the menu items on a hand-painted sign: 35 cent Coney Island hot dogs, 40 cent bowls of chili , a few sandwiches, potato chips and soda pop.
“Those regional malls that opened up in the ’60s, they were such a destination for people. For families and people, that would be their day out, they would go to the mall,” said Tom Giftos. “That was obviously very important in seeding our success.”
Now, 50 years later, National Coney Island has become an iconic restaurant chain in the Metro Detroit area, selling more than 1 million of the Detroit-style hot dogs each year.
The restaurant chain celebrated its 50th anniversary by offering customers 50 cent coney dogs on Tuesday.
Giftos is now president of the company. But he hasn’t forgotten the early days, washing dishes, helping out at the chili plant and working side by side with his father and other family members.
“It wasn’t just work, obviously, for us,” he said. “It was our lives, our family.”
James Giftos was born in 1938 in Pelopponese, Greece, and moved to Detroit after World War II. He graduated from Cass Technical High School and Wayne State University and served as a stockbroker in a Detroit firm.
Giftos also was a partner at the National Chili Co. in Detroit, which he later solely owned. After his first National Coney Island location opened in 1965, the business grew to include as many as 23 locations in Metro Detroit.
There are now 20 restaurants, and a location at Detroit Metro Airport, with about 900 employees.
Tom Giftos is calling the shots now and he said he is not looking to expand rapidly or head to other states, like some of his competitors have done. He says he would prefer to focus on renovating the existing restaurants and perfecting the food and customer experience.
However, some parts of the business have changed. For example, National Coney Island now sells hot dogs, chili and Coney Kits at Kroger, Meijer and a few other grocers and wholesale stores.
After his father’s death in 2011, Giftos said he has really come to understand the concept of the “American Dream” that his father embodied during his lifetime.
“Certainly when I think about my dad, especially in the last few years since he’s gone,” said Giftos, “I completely appreciate all the hardships he went through to get everything where it is today.”