Rubin: Opening soon — the American dream, with Coneys

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Lon Domgjoni had his eye on the building 10 or 15 years ago, before at least three restaurants failed there.

Now it’s his, and he says this time, things will be different.

A restaurateur is supposed to say that, of course. It’s no business for pessimists.

It’s also no business for amateurs, and he’s a seasoned pro. So his chances are lots better than you might reflexively think as you whiz past on Northwestern Highway in Southfield, wondering who’s tempting fate this time in the little spot that most notably served as the Sunrise Cafe.

Domgjoni, 38, hopes to open L. Georges Coney Island in the next few weeks and expects his breakfasts, lunches and dinners to sell like hotcakes.

In his own small way, he will be demonstrating what’s great about America — besides Coneys, that is. And not “again,” but right now.

As someone who refers to the kitchen in my house as “the reheating room,” I’m rooting for him. To me, the only thing better than restaurants is more restaurants.

I cringe sometimes, though, when I see someone setting up in a location that devours dreams like they were peeled shrimp at an Easter buffet.

Domgjoni insists geography won’t be a problem.

The real issue, he says, has been the apparent business plan of the India-infused diner and the pizza place that were the last few occupants, both lessees:

Make minimal renovations, throw open the doors, and then close them for good in what seemed like weeks.

More than a name

Conversely, Domgjoni started swinging a hammer as soon as he closed the sale.

The new, improved interior has the feel of a diner, with 17 chrome stools at a long, scalloped counter. But it’s also sleek and modern, with black upholstery on a row of dark hardwood booths.

The name should help, too. Counting the L. Georges founded by Domgjoni’s dad at Six Mile and Schaefer in Detroit and the one Domgjoni has in progress in Fenton, there are 11 L. Georges in Metro Detroit — or should that be L. Georgeses?

The designation is offered more or less free to friends and family of the original L. George, whose name is actually George L. The restaurants are not franchises or, in many cases, financially linked.

The operators generally share an Albanian heritage. “There’s a gazillion of us,” says Domgjoni’s nephew, Joe Gjokaj, who works a deep fryer while he studies to become a police officer. “Everyone knows everyone somehow.”

Lon and his father, however, do not share their recipe for the chicken marinade they say sets their restaurant apart.

“We came up with it,” Lon says, “and it dies with us.”

Big goals, smaller margins

Frank Domgjoni, now largely retired, founded the L. Georges on Six Mile in 1992. Lon started working there when he was 16.

Some kids grow up in the restaurant world and can’t wait to run off and join a circus, or maybe become a lawyer for one. Lon loved it.

“I’d be eating in the school cafeteria or we’d go out to eat,” he says, and he would marvel at the finished product: “I always thought it was an achievement.”

At home, he cedes the kitchen to his wife, Drita, whom he met on a beach 12 years ago during a vacation in Italy.

At work, the kitchen is behind the counter and serves as entertainment. “The customer sees everything,” Frank says. “Like watching a movie.”

The restaurant sits at Beck Road, about 50 yards before Northwestern becomes the Lodge.

Access for northbound traffic is cumbersome, but Domgjoni says the food will be worth the U-turn: potatoes prepared in house each day, not pulled from the freezer; lettuce personally chopped; higher-grade chicken.

“I never like to make 30- or 40-percent margins,” he says. If he can turn lesser profits with better ingredients, that’s how he wants to operate.

It’s the American ideal: His business, run his way. Succeeding where others have failed. Building a better mousetrap, or at least an omelet.

“Someday,” he once told his dad, “I’m going to buy that place.”

Now it’s his — 59 seats of dreaming big.