ZEPHYRHILLS — When John and Sally Lee purchased the iconic Coney Island Drive Inn in Brooksville in 2014, they not only purchased a longtime, popular hot dog restaurant. They inherited the wealth of history that came with it.
Its walls are filled with nostalgia of a bygone era — old signs, license plates and other memorabilia. Legend has it that in 1961, the King himself, Elvis Presley, noshed on the famous hot dogs.
Earlier this year, the Lees branched out and opened a second Coney Island restaurant on Gall Boulevard. By doing so, they not only brought the popular Coney Island tastes to Zephyrhills, but also continued the tradition of preserving history.
In this case, the restaurant's vibe echoes the days of Zephyrhills' past.
The restaurant's decor is similar to that of the historic Brooksville joint, with old-fashioned metal signs, license plates from throughout the United States, an old-fashioned carousel for the kids and remnants of the past. One area is filled with the history of Zephyrhills High School, decorated by students from the school's art department.
"We gave them a whole room, which now has Zephyrhills High School artifacts and memorabilia," said John Lee. "It really shows the history of the school."
Lee, who has 45 years in the restaurant business, including 30 years in the steakhouse business, was the owner of Sioux City Steakhouse in New Port Richey until he decided to sell it and purchase Coney Island in Brooksville. The decision was made, he said, when their son, Carter, showed an interest in the business when he was 16. Lee thought Coney Island was less complex and a great way to introduce Carter, who is now 18, to the restaurant business.
With that in mind, expanding was always part of the original plan. The Lees began their search for another Coney Island location last year, first looking in Citrus County.
"When I bought (the Brooksville restaurant), it came with such a history," Lee said. "I thought then that it could be expandable."
Lee also discovered there was a distinct travel pattern that continues to draw many out-of-town patrons. The pattern he said, came through Citrus County and down U.S. 98, through Brooksville, continuing south along U.S. 301 through eastern Pasco County.
"Then we ran across this place (in Zephyrhills)," Lee said. "And there is just a lot of history to this home."
In fact, part of the reason the Lees chose to purchase the building is its history. Built in 1910, the restaurant is the historic home of Rosemary Trottman, a longtime teacher at Zephyrhills High School, who was also the founder of the Zephyrhills Historical Association and author of The History of Zephyrhills, 1821 to 1921.
Coney Island Zephryhills has the same menu as the Brooksville restaurant, such as its famous footlongs with a variety of toppings, loose-meat sandwiches, fried okra and chicken wings, as well as thick milk shakes and floats. It also continues the laid-back atmosphere, where the workers have smiles, call out names when orders are ready, and treat patrons like neighbors.
The Lees plan to have a grand opening celebration later this month, with a week of events and specials. They will have their first Elvis show, with tribute artist Kenn "E" Grube on Thursday, and will host the first auto cruise-in next Friday.
While the majority of patrons like the food, Lee admits it has little to do with Coney Island's popularity. The real reason is one he hears time and time again. Lee, who is 61, said patrons, many in their 60s, tell him about their visits to Coney Island as children in the 1960s.
"It reminds them of the time when they were kids," he said. "They just sit around and enjoy it."