People have been eating chili dogs at the counter and in the booths of Red Hots Coney Island since the Harding administration — and the establishment was more than showing its age.
The Highland Park diner at Victor and Woodward has been in Richard Harlan's family for 94 years, and while the chili recipe hasn't changed, the neighborhood and economy has. Business is okay — Detroit is a coney-loving town — but not so much that Richard Harlan and his wife Carol could afford to fix broken stools or get a new stove, which had exactly half of its six burners in working order.
So when the Harlans' grown children were approached by scouts from the Food Network to be featured on "American Diner Revival" with home improvement expert Ty Pennington and chef Amanda Freitag, they jumped at the chance to help their parents.
The show's tag line is "bringing back the diner, one town at a time," and premiers on the Food Network May 22. Pennington renovates the decor while Freitag works with the kitchen to create an updated menu. Red Hots is scheduled to be featured on an episode airing some time in June, along with Dena's Family Restaurant in Monroe.
Christina and Rich Harlan worked with the stars of the show, a film crew and a group of volunteers that included family members and costumers to renovate Red Hots in just four days.
"It was an awesome experience. Meeting Ty and Amanda, it wasn't like they just came in and said the stuff (on camera) and left. They acted like they were one of our friends. Within the four days it was all like family," said Rich Harlan, 26, who took time off from his job at General Motors in Lake Orion to participate in the show.
Seeing the small diner torn apart was emotional for Rich and his sister Christina, a special education teacher in Troy who works Saturdays at Red Hots alongside her parents.
"Every day something happened that made me cry," says Christina Harlan. "They had the whole restaurant gutted in 22 minutes. The stove in the back is pre-1960s and when they pulled it out, it broke and the next thing I know Rich and I are both crying. We're crying over a hunk of metal!"
Broken stools, worn linoleum, and duct-taped booths were scrapped and brand new retro-style sparkling booths, shelving, a new stove, modern wall paneling and hot dog-themed pop wall art was brought in.
Updates made to the menu will be revealed on the episode, but customers can be sure that the Harlans will keep their coney dogs at $2 each.
"You didn't realize how dingy it was and how much repair was needed," Christina said. "I would try to scrub the chairs and scrub the walls and you can only scrub so much. It doesn't make it new. The little money we had would go into fixing whatever was broken."
Christina's main concern, however, was what her parents would think. Her father Richard has worked at Red Hots since 1967 when he was 13. That was just a year before the last time the coney island had any remodeling done. Christina was worried he wouldn't like the new look, or the new fixtures.
When it was time for the big reveal, though, Carol and Richard Harlan were thrilled.
Carol says she and Richard were overwhelmed by the generosity of everyone volunteering their time and they're happy to share the fruits of everyone's labor with Highland Park.
"Richard has said for years that we're in a poor area, but our customers still deserve a nice place to go. Not only is this makeover for us, it's for our customers and the neighborhood."
Red Hots Coney Island
12 Victor, Highland Park
7 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.
"American Diner Revival"
Series premiere 10:30 p.m. May 22
Michigan restaurants will be featured in an episode airing in June