BROOKSVILLE — When Blair Hensley took over Brooksville's oldest active eatery four years ago, he also made it a personal mission to preserve the city's history for all to see. And people who pop into Coney Island Drive Inn for a "world famous footlong" chili dog will find themselves surrounded by nostalgia.
Weathered signs from storied Brooksville businesses such as Hogan's Rexall Drugs and Weeks Hardware hang throughout. A room in the back, painted in Hernando High School colors of purple and gold, sports a collection of well-worn football jerseys. And there's an ever-growing collection of memorabilia celebrating Elvis, who, legend has it, once stopped by Coney Island on his way to filming Follow That Dream in Citrus County.
For Hensley, 31, it's hard not to get caught up in the lore of Coney Island. Indeed, a good portion of the population of modern-day Brooksville practically grew up at the place.
"It's a staple, a constant," he said, sipping his morning iced tea. "Of all the things that have changed in Brooksville the past couple of decades, this is one of those places that didn't."
In between his regular duties as hot dog chef, Hensley has been readying his restaurant for its 50th anniversary celebration on Wednesday. He's expecting quite a crowd, so he's ordered extra footlong hot dogs, which he will be selling for 50 cents throughout the day.
"It's going to be fun," Hensley said. "I'm looking forward to seeing a lot of old and new customers."
Familiar faces are what Coney Island is all about. It's not surprising that Hensley knows most of the regulars who stop by, including Willie Stephens, 48, who grew up on St. Francis Street.
Though he now lives in Spring Hill, Stephens still makes his way to Coney Island a few times a month, where he usually orders a footlong chili-cheese dog with onions, french fries and a root beer.
"I've been coming since I was 12 years old, maybe even longer than that." Stephens said. "I used to ride my bike up here. "
In 1960, Coney Island's original owners, Darrell and Gertrude Todd, built their restaurant on the main thoroughfare through Brooksville. Three major highways — U.S. 98, State Road 50 and U.S. 41 — converged near that point along E Jefferson Street. The hot dog stand offered travelers from Tampa, Lakeland and Orlando one of the town's few respites from the road.
Back then, a quarter could buy you a hot dog. Fries were 15 cents. On weekends, when ranchers made their way into town for supplies and teenagers hit the drive-in movie theater, Coney Island was always packed.
In 1971, Todd sold the restaurant to Ralph and Jean Collins, whose family ran it for 35 years. By the time Hensley bought it, in 2006, Coney Island's glory day were long past, thanks to the community's preference for modern fast-food chains.
So Hensley decided to treat Coney Island like the institution it has become.
"It was more important to keep it pretty much the way people have always known it," said Hensley. "There's something to be said for tradition."
Indeed, Hensley grew up learning the restaurant trade from his mother, Larie Hensley, owner of Mallie Kyla's Cafe, just up the street from his restaurant.
His mom taught him the value of hard work and believing that doing so would help him achieve his goals. Still, Hensley has learned a few things on his own, and seems to never be at a loss for fun ideas to lure in crowds.
Hensley hosts bike nights and classic car cruise-ins, and even frequently features performances by local Elvis impersonator Kenn "E" Grube. On nights when the Hernando High football team plays at home, he's apt to keep the place open for hungry postgame fans.
Perhaps Hensley's best publicity boost came unexpectedly in May, when he received a threatening letter from a lawyer representing the Subway sandwich chain. He was told he must cease using the term "footlong" in his advertising or face legal action from the company.
Despite trying to explain that Coney Island had been using "footlong" for nearly 50 years, Subway wouldn't let up. So Hensley did what any good businessman in his position would do.
He ran with it, notifying everyone he knew in the media of his plight. Within days, the story was plastered nationwide in newspapers, and on TV, radio and news blogs. Inundated by angry e-mails, Subway ultimately backed down.
"It was a victory for the little guy," Hensley said. "And it made me feel great that so many people everywhere backed us up on it."
Hensley said that despite the economic slowdown, Coney Island has managed to hold its own. He feels somewhat fortunate to be able to hang on when so many mom-and-pop restaurants have not.
"Keeping a restaurant business for 50 years is getting to be a rare thing," Hensley said. In fact, he can only think of three other Brooksville dining establishments that have surpassed the 10-year mark.
"It tells me we must be doing something right," he said. "Hopefully, that's a good sign for the next 50 years."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.