CRESTVIEW — On a chilly morning Julia Phillips arrives at Coney Island two hours before the restaurant opens to prepare for the day.
Heat from the grill, the bun steamer and a neon “hot dog” sign warms the small space. The smell of freshly-made chili — a Coney Island staple — fills the air.
Phillips has owned Coney Island at the corner of Main Street and Industrial Drive since 1990. As she sits in her business before opening one morning, a longtime customer comes in the back door to slip her a Christmas card and a hug.
She thinks back on hundreds of memories she’s heard from customers who have eaten at her restaurant their entire life. The thought of giving up the business and following a different path has crossed her mind, but she couldn’t leave her customers and employees that have become family.
“I could tell you stories and stories of things that people have told me,” Phillips said. “I love listening to them.”
Before she acquired Coney Island, Phillips’ husband was a mail carrier with a route on Main Street. He got to know the previous owners, and when they decided to sell the business he jumped on the opportunity.
Phillips is since divorced and has been running Coney Island on her own for 11 years with help from her manager of 13 years, Tiffany Watts, and two other employees. The business has a history that extends long before her time.
Coney Island’s original proprietors were two brothers from New York who founded the restaurant in 1947 in a two-story white stucco building.
At that time, trains stopped at the depot across Industrial Drive. They sometimes carried airmen on their way to Camp Walton — now known as Fort Walton Beach. They would stop in for a bite to eat while waiting for the bus.
Mable Edge and her husband Phillip were hired at the restaurant in 1954. They managed Coney Island for six years before they purchased the business.
The Edges moved the restaurant into a small brick building that had been built next door specifically for the expansion. They continued serving the community for 29 years.
When Phillips bought Coney Island, she hired Mable to work part time. Mable had been retired for a couple years, but continued to work for the next seven years.
“She knew so much and taught me so much about the business,” Phillips said of Mable, who passed away in 2010. “Her children still come in here and eat ... and her husband ... he’ll pop in and get a hot dog and a hug. Or both.”
Phillips sees countless regulars who have been eating at her establishment for decades. They bring their children and grandchildren back for a taste of nostalgia. Even those who have moved away from Crestview return for their Coney Island fix.
“We might not know their name when they come in, but I know what they eat,” Phillips said. "They’ve grown up on this, because back in those days there weren’t that many restaurants in Crestview."
Some recall a time when the restaurant sold eight hot dogs or five burgers for $1, prices that did not change for the first 25 years of operation.
“The burgers are (most popular),” Phillips said. “They seem to like them over the hot dogs.”
But everyone has their favorite menu item. Throughout the years, the homemade chili from a secret recipe has been a trademark.
In a 1990 interview with the News Bulletin, Mable admitted to slightly changing the recipe she inherited, but it hasn’t changed since.
The menu is simple and the service is fast. On any given day around lunchtime, it’s standing room only while customers watch their food being made on the grill across the counter.
Phillips said her biggest challenge is competition that has come with the growth of Crestview. She has tried to add to the menu in the past, but the loyal customers weren’t interested in change.
In fact, not much has changed since the beginning, other than the addition of cash registers and phones.
“Our customers, this is what they want," Phillips said. "They want to come and find it just as it was.”