Detroit's Lafayette Coney Island cited for COVID violation, riling rival owner

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Hold the mustard. One of Detroit's famous coney islands is finding support from the unlikeliest of sympathizers after being issued an up-to-$1,000 citation from the city's health department over mask violations — its adversary in the legendary coney war.

The city health department issued the citation to Lafayette Coney Island on Tuesday, about two days after the restaurant was featured in a popular social media post about the rivalry between Lafayette and neighboring American Coney Island. 

An inspector visited the restaurant based on a complaint received about Lafayette, said Detroit Chief Public Health Officer Denise Fair. 

"When our inspector arrived at Lafayette Coney Island, employees were observed not wearing masks," Fair said in a statement. "As is our standard practice, a citation was issued for a violation of the MDHHS (Michigan Department of Health and Human Services) emergency orders."

Ali Alhalmi, manager of Lafayette Coney Island

Ali Alhalmi, manager of Lafayette Coney Island, said two of his employees had masks below their chins when the inspector came onsite. He said one had just come up from the basement and another was in between carryout orders. 

The citation comes after Dave Portnoy, founder of sports blog Barstool Sports, posted to his Twitter page a two-part video segment on the rivalry between American and Lafayette. Portnoy's Barstool Fund has raised about $33.5 million for small businesses in need of support because of pandemic closures or restrictions, including American Coney Island.

When Grace Keros, owner of American Coney Island, got the call about the fund, she invited Portnoy to have a coney at the restaurant. During that visit, Portnoy filmed a segment on the rivalry between the two restaurants.

In the video posted Jan. 24, Portnoy tried hot dogs inside each location, violating state policy that banned indoor dining during an uptick in coronavirus cases in Michigan. The policy was lifted Monday, a little more than a week after the video was posted. 

When a Lafayette employee brought Portnoy the meal, he said, "Sit down here and eat it. We break the law. It's OK," according to the video. 

Alhalmi said he wasn't sure if the city's Tuesday visit was related to the video. But Keros said she was told by the city inspector that the city health department had been asked by the state to perform an inspection after someone in state government watched the video and saw Portnoy eating inside the restaurants.

"You tell me what the difference is between doing that, and all the people at the mall over the holidays standing up in the food court and eating?" she said. 

American Coney Island wasn't ticketed because it was in compliance with all COVID mandates the day of the inspection. Still, Keros said she was frustrated with state and city officials. 

"It took Dave Portnoy to bring some light and some support to both coney islands," she said. "Instead of getting support, what did we get but the state sending the city in.

"Where has the state been while we’ve been following all the rules for the past 11 months and been dying downtown?”

The video also shows Portnoy speaking with management at both facilities, at times with face masks pulled down.

The Detroit Health Department would not say Monday whether the Tuesday inspection or the complaint that prompted the visit were in relation to the video. 

Since the indoor dining ban was ordered, more than a dozen restaurants that continued indoor operations have faced various citations, liquor license suspensions and court orders. The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association estimates that at least 3,000 restaurants couldn't handle the pandemic's pressures and permanently closed. 

Tuesday's citation is Lafayette's first since the most recent restaurant closure went into effect Nov. 18, according to Detroit Health Department data.

Staff Writer Melody Baetens contributed.