A taste of home for Michiganders at the Republican National Convention

Aug 28, 2012

Michigan delegates to the Republican National Convention can find a lot to eat in Tampa.

But at least one business, not too far from the convention center, hopes those delegates will also want a small taste of home.

Tampa is hardly short of great uniquely Floridian food choices, from Cuban sandwiches in Ybor City to beachside shacks where you can eat a variety of fish that were swimming in the Gulf of Mexico a few hours before.

But sometimes you just want a coney.

It’s a slow day at Luke’s Coney Island.   There are just a few regulars at the tables in this little restaurant on the north side of St. Petersburg. But business is expected to pick up this week.

Luke’s is just a short trip across the bay from the convention center where the Republicans are meeting this week.  

Joe Lukesan is a native of southeast Michigan.  But he’s lived in Florida for the past 20 years. Like many other Michigan ex-pats, Lukesan says getting a Coney was an important part of any trip home.  Until a year ago, when he had an epiphany.

“A little over a year ago I was up there and went to Lafayette…when we first landed…and then found myself going there while we were there …and on the way back to the airport. I said ‘I got to stop this. We got to bring one down here,” says Lukesan. 

Lukesan says he strives for flavors that fans of Detroit Coneys would find authentic.

The year old business imports its dogs from Southfield and its Coney sauce from Detroit, along with Faygo and Vernors.

Surprisingly, Luke’s is not the only Coney Island in St. Pete.

In fact, the Coney Island Grill in downtown St. Pete opened in 1926.

There they serve a hot dog with what the waitress says is “Greek” chili, from a recipe the diner’s original owner used.  She admitted she’s a little vague on the difference between “Lafayette” and “the other kind of hot dog” from Detroit.

Joe Grimm says replicating the uniquely Michiganian coney taste has been difficult for those who’ve tried to do it.  Grimm has literally written the book on Michigan’s Coney dog obsession.   He’s sat down at the counters of dozens of Coney Islands across Michigan and across the country, including Florida.

Grimm says the problem most Coney Island owners outside Michigan face is getting the right ingredients.

“As I say not every Coney Island uses the same hot dog. And that’s part of why some places like American or Lafayette will have a real loyal following and customers who won’t eat anyplace else,” says Grimm,  “The mustard and the onions are not too particular.   But I think it’s really that chili sauce that makes the difference.”

Back at Luke’s, Joe Lukesan says business usually picks up in October, as Michiganders who relocate to Florida for the winter, start showing up.  But he’s hopeful that this week some of Michigan’s delegates to the Republican National Convention will stop by.

“We’re going to have a lot folks from Michigan in this week…and it would be nice of them to come in and have a hot dog…and say ‘Goodness gracious….we had a little piece of Detroit here in St. Pete,” says Lukesan.