Hot dog! Three generations of the Kapellas family are celebrating the 90th anniversary of La Crosse-area Coney Island hot dog restaurants, and continue to look for a South Side site.
Special anniversary promotions will be held late this summer, said Chris Kapellas, who owns the business with his parents, Tom and Sandy Kapellas.
Best known for its chili hot dog, the family’s first Coney Island opened in 1922 at 114 S. Fourth St. in downtown La Crosse. It’s been there ever since and serves as headquarters for the Kapellas’ chain of four Coney Islands. The other locations are in Bridgeview Plaza and Valley View Mall in La Crosse, and in West Salem.
Tom Kapellas still uses a secret recipe to make the restaurants’ chili sauce. “I got it from my dad,” he said.
His father, Jim Kapellas, and Tom Sideras opened the first restaurant. In 1962, Sideras died and Tom Kapellas bought his share of the business. Jim Kapellas retired in 1963 but remained active in the business until his death in 1975.
Chris Kapellas, who oversees operations today, is part of the third generation of Kapellas to work at the restaurants. The others are his siblings, Ann Zumach, and Joan and Jim Kapellas.
His son, Kai, is 11 and works part-time at the restaurants during summer vacation and on Saturdays during the school year. He hasn’t decided whether to have a career in the restaurant industry.
“We’re still here,” Tom Kapellas said of the original downtown restaurant and the family’s newer locations. “We’ve been very fortunate.”
“We’ve made it through the Great Depression and through recessions,” Chris Kapellas added.
Why has the business survived for 90 years?
“I had a good teacher,” Tom Kapellas said of his father. “I learned customer service and honesty. And there was a little luck besides.”
The family has made some good expansion decisions through the years, Chris Kapellas said, starting with the 1972 opening of Coney Island in the then-new Bridgeview Plaza shopping center. The third location opened in 1978 in Shelby Mall on the city’s South Side, but closed in 2003 after it lost its lease.
The two other Coney Islands opened in 1980 in Valley View Mall and in 2004 in West Salem.
“We’re looking at the South Side again” for a new location, Chris Kapellas said. “We’re looking for the right spot with the right numbers.” He doesn’t have a timetable for opening a restaurant there.
Kapellas said the family recently signed a new five-year lease on its Bridgeview Plaza location.
Keep it local
He also said his family believes in buying local. For example, its hot dogs are made by the Bakalars Sausage Co. in La Crosse.
The four restaurants together have about 60 employees, most of them part time.
While Tom Kapellas has spent his entire career at the Coney Island restaurants, son Chris spent several years working at restaurants in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and in Steamboat, Colo., before returning to La Crosse 12 years ago to help his parents run the business.
Since he returned, Coney Islands’ menu has expanded to include salads, other sandwiches, kids’ meals and combo meals.
But the restaurants’ chili dog remains the biggest seller.
Coney Island usually ships about three or four orders of chili dog fixings each week to customers around the nation, many of them former area residents who miss the taste.
Coney Island ships the packages of hot dogs, chili sauce, buns and mustard on Mondays and Tuesdays, using dry ice to keep them cold until they arrive. Customers can order them by telephone or on the restaurants’ website.
Coney Island received its first such order in 1998 from a former La Crosse-area resident who was living in Hawaii. That first order was for 100 hot dogs and chili sauce.