By Roseanne McKee
Republished with permission of the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise
One evening when I was in Tulsa with my friends Mark and Linda Simms, they took me to Coney Island — a family-owned restaurant established in 1926. They said the restaurant had special significance for Mark Simms. We agreed that one day he would tell me the story, and I would write about it. On Oct. 19, I arranged to meet him to hear about the important part the Coney Island Restaurant and its staff had played in his childhood.
“It started when mom took me to the Coney Island, and we stopped there and we ate. There was a long line, and we had to wait. … I used to watch people come in … they had kind of school-like benches.”
These were simpler times, when children were free to explore. As a child, Simms, remembering the location of the Coney Island he had visited with his mom, decided to venture there one his own one day.
“I was real young and I’d ride the bus downtown. When I got downtown, I’d walk to Coney Island,” Simms said. “I must have been in grade school. I don’t remember the exact age. Anyway, I knew all the bus routes around Tulsa, and I knew how to transfer. All the bus drivers knew me. It was real easy to get down there and get home because I knew the bus routes.
“Well, one day I ran out of money and I didn’t have enough money to buy lunch. So, I asked the owner, ‘could I work to get me a coney,’ and he looked at me and he said, ‘yeah, you can.’ He said, ‘if you’ll sweep the floors, mop, clean the desk and clean the bathroom, I’ll give you free chips, pop and a coney — as much as you want.’ At that time, that was a big deal for me.
“Anyway, this went on for a while. … and I got real familiar with him and his workers. If he was off, they would still give [lunch] to me.
“It got toward fall. I swept, mopped, and I went to get my coney and I couldn’t swallow. … So, I started crying. The owner came out and said, ‘what’s wrong, and he looked at me and felt my neck and said, ‘I think you have the mumps.’
“So, he called my mom, and they rushed me to Hillcrest. Of course, I did have the mumps, but I was still crying because I’d worked and didn’t get my coney,” he said with a laugh.
“The owner kept saying, don’t worry about it, you can still come over and get your coney. But that didn’t soothe me. I was still cryin’ cause I couldn’t eat my coney,” Simms said laughing.
“Time went by and I came in several times, and he served me a coney without working. Finally, I got to where I could work again and continue my coneys.
“I never did know his name … I just called him the Greek. He had those real thick eye glasses. He didn’t remember my name either. He’d say, ‘was the little Indian boy through yet?’ I knew him as the Greek, and he knew me as the little Indian boy. At that time we didn’t know each other’s name.
His daughter, Georgia Tsilekas, confirmed in a phone interview that her father who founded Coney Island, had worn thick eye glasses and his name was Christ Economou.
“Finally, we moved away from Suburban Acres,” Simms said.
He grew up and didn’t have much time to think of Tulsa and the Coney Island. He attended college, served in the Army and started a business in Bartlesville.
Years later on a day trip to Tulsa, Simms and his wife passed by the restaurant. It was open and so they went in.
“Everything was pretty much the same. I was going through the line, and there was a real pretty Greek girl. I told her the story and she said, ‘I’m the granddaughter.’ … While I was talking to her, her mother walked up and said, ‘I’m the daughter.’ As I’m going through the line she said, ‘he doesn’t have to pay for it.’ So, she gave me a free pop, chips and coney. She said, ‘I was a little girl, but I remembered something like that.’
“Later it closed and they opened in another location. … They had the old pictures on the wall. I couldn’t remember their names, but I recognized them. Linda took a picture of me out front.
“We still go to the new loctation, but my fondest memories are from the original little location downtown. That was my first job,” Simms said.
The family still owns Coney Island at the northwest corner of Archer and Main in the Brady District of Tulsa, and they still have the same school-style seating.
“My dad bought them used in 1926. They were restaurant chairs from the east,” Tsilekas explained.
Economou originally had 26 restaurants. Once established, he would sell each of them to an immigrant and move to another town until he arrived in Tulsa and decided to put down roots, she said.
“He had stores from Pennsylvania to Nebraska to Dallas. His cousin said, ‘I’ve heard Tulsa is a nice town. As soon as he got off the train and looked around, he said, ‘that’s the place where I want to be.
“He went back to Greece in 1929 and married my mom and brought her back,” Tsilekas said.
The Economous had three children — Georgia Tsilekas, Pope Kingsley, who owns the Coney Islander in Owasso, and James Economou, who owns the Coney Island in the Brady District — managed by his daughter-in-law, Vicki Economou.