There’s a saying, you can’t teach and old dog new tricks. For the folks behind Houston’s famed James Coney Island the response is, “Define old.” Celebrating its 90th anniversary, the Houston institution is doing everything except taking it easy. In fact, the company has begun a major restaurant redesign targeted at the next generation of customers. Over the next 18 months, James Coney Islands across Houston – there are 21 stores – will be undergoing some of the biggest changes in the concept’s nine-decade history.
The most noticeable change will be the division of existing stores into three comparable concepts under the James Coney Island brand, each determined by the demographic in which it is located.
In the middle tier will be the new James Coney Island’s JCI Grill – to be known simply as JCI Grill. With two of approximately a dozen of these stores to debut by late July or early August, JCI Grill will present customers with a more modern, contemporary dining experience that will incorporate new color schemes, graphic designs, and lighting. While all the stores will continue to be fast casual concepts, the dining experience will be more comfortable and modern, conducive to couples going on a date or groups wanting a casual dinner without a fast food feel. The conversion of the first two stores begins in July with the exterior after which interior work begins to shorten times when the stores will be closed for the construction.
James Coney Island’s Walker Street Grill, named for the location of the first James Coney Island on Walker downtown, will be at the top of the tier offering an expanded dining menu and full alcoholic beverage services. The first of these stores, which will have more of a downtown restaurant feel, will possibly debut as early as late fall or early next year.
In both Walker Street Grill and JCI Grill, the current open kitchens will disappear, high-tech digital boards and order delivery systems will be installed and the interior designs will be softened to make the dining experience more comfortable and relaxing. The expanded menus will include all the popular hot dogs and other dishes James Coney Island has been famous for, but they will also highlight the variety of made-to-order salads, gourmet dogs, burgers, and multiple sandwiches, many of which have been rolled out to stores in the past year.
While undergoing design changes, the third group of stores, most notably the smallest ones, will retain the name James Coney Island name and current menus.
The changes all reflect how James Coney Island has expanded what it offers and the trends on how people – both in the current generation and the next – want to dine. Ironically, for hard-core James Coney Island fans who might fear these changes, take heart. The new menu actually more reflects the one offered by the early stores which had some 50 choices on the menu.
“This re-image initiative takes our brand closer to a premium, fast-casual level,” says president Darrin Straughan. “With our Legacy Menu and new menu items, we’ve got good food comparable to casual players, but with an average check and convenience that are much more attractive.”
James Coney Island got its beginning in 1923 when Tom and James Papadakis came to Houston from Greece via New York and opened their first restaurant, flipping a coin to decide whose name went on the sign. Tom lost. Selling sandwiches, hot dogs, and secret-recipe chili, the hot dog stand in downtown Houston became an instant hit, lining up the millionaires right next to the paper boys waiting for their “Coneys.” Forty years later, they opened their second location followed by additional stores, and by 1988, it was a multi-million dollar operation, selling over 30,000 custom-made hot dogs each day.
In 1990, the family sold the business to a group of local investors who wished to keep the Papadakis’ traditions alive – even the buns are still made to the original specifications and hand-cut when ordered so what happens inside the bun, stays in the bun – while also keeping up with current trends.
James Coney Island was fast casual before the term became an industry buzz. At its 21 Houston-area locations, the menu is fast food made to order – nothing starts cooking until you place the order – but look for the upgrades in service and presentation when you dine inside. Real plates and personal service means while the food is fast, the experience doesn’t have to be.