BROOKSVILLE — Almost as soon as the dozen employees had gathered in the artifact-packed dining room at Coney Island Drive Inn on Friday morning, owner Blair Hensley broke the news:
"Sunday is my last day," Hensley said. "I'm selling Coney Island."
"Wow! Seriously?" said Lisa Mullins, his most veteran worker. Other employees gasped and, before long, some had pulled out tissues to wipe away tears.
As word spread to the rest of Brooksville, so did the shock.
"Did you just say he's selling?" asked Mike Steele, 39, a regular customer and old friend of Hensley's. "Oh, man!"
When Hensley bought Coney Island eight years ago, Steele said, it was "a little run-down and probably had a questionable destiny."
Before long, its parking lot on E Jefferson Street was regularly packed both during lunch and dinner hours and when Hensley opened it for charity fundraisers or special events. The restaurant's name appeared on the jerseys of youth and adult sports teams that Hensley sponsored.
Meanwhile, the jerseys of past Hernando High School athletes started to appear on the walls of the Coney Island dining room, along with a massive collection of classic signs for national brands, such as Orange Crush, and local ones, including Carlton's Market and Frazier's Farm.
The combination of the themes — the history of Brooksville and mid 20th century roadside commerce — came naturally to Coney Island, Hensley said.
Opened in 1960, the restaurant was designed to capture tourist traffic near U.S. 41. It's also the oldest continually operating eatery in the city, Hensley said.
And probably one of the most successful.
Hensley paid $340,000 for the restaurant, which is not much more than the building and property was worth. Though he didn't reveal the sale price, he said he sold as many hot dogs in March as he would have in six months when he first owned it.
Many customers are out-of-towners, Hensley said, drawn by a marketing campaign that includes billboards on Interstate 75. But it attracts so many locals, Steele said, that Brooksville residents of any age are likely to see somebody they know.
"It's like a multiple-year class reunion every time you go in," he said.
"Very few people go there just for the hot dogs. Sometimes it's the friendly service. Sometimes it's the nostalgia on the walls. Sometimes it just feels like the right thing to do."
It still will, said John Lee, who along with his wife, Sally, is the new owner. He has 43 years of experience in the restaurant business. He recently sold the Sioux City Steakhouse in New Port Richey, and his company operates dining rooms in the Timber Pines and Wellington of Seven Hills communities of Spring Hill.
The Lees said they intend to be as hands-on as Hensley, who was known for working long hours loading down footlongs with chili or kraut.
That was a big reason he decided to sell, said Hensley, who will remain in Brooksville and stay active in his other businesses. The long hours were wearing him down.