Bayou Eats | Coney Island Connections
article by Vanelis Rivera
photography by Kelly Moore Clark
West Monroe local Chris Lewis is pushing the bounds of his classic american diner, both in and out of the restaurant. His expansive donations and heart for service is why Coney Island Connections is a service-centered cornerstone.
Coney Island should elicit images of quaint fairground rides, an emblematic, one-hundred-year-old boardwalk, and the promise of enjoying one of America’s most favored chili-topped dishes, the Coney Island hot dog. While many historians credit the origin of this distinctly topped sausage and bun to the Brooklyn seaside neighborhood, outside of the Tri-State area the name stirs up a much different hot dog setting. Across the country, Coney Island diners have been surfacing as early as the 1900s, most likely by Greek and Macedonian immigrants. Each diner maintains the tradition of classic American diner grabs while adding personal flair and regional favorites. One such Coney Island, located on North 7th Street in West Monroe, is pushing the bounds of Coney Island diners, both in and out of the restaurant.
Before buying Coney Island Connection from Scott Sanders, West Monroe local Chris Lewis was busy running a successful semi-trailer truck company hauling wood chips for clients. “All I knew was work, work, work,” he says, adding, “I’ve never in my life had intentions of even owning a restaurant.” Be this as it may, he has had his share of restaurant experience. He landed his first restaurant job at just eleven years old, a place that went by the name of Zipps. Then, at around fourteen, he got a job bussing tables at Gravy’s, a restaurant where his mother was employed. “I remember I used to get paid every Wednesday, sixty bucks, and I thought I was the richest kid,” he recalls fondly. During high school, his last fast-food gig would be at Coney Island Connection, a place his mother had been working at, and would be for almost twenty-five years. Her consistent work ethic caught the attention of Sanders who offered her his business when he was getting ready to move out of state. Though she declined, she encouraged her son to meet with Sanders. “The rest is history,” he says. “And still, to this day, I’m thanking God for it.”
On June 22, 2019, Lewis proudly announced the reopening of Coney Island Connection, much to the exhilaration of a loyal customer base. “Almost cried when they shut down. Just opened a few days ago and it’s our third time this week to eat here,” confesses one customer on the restaurant’s Facebook page. Though it had good bones, Lewis wanted to personalize the space and the menu. As a proud West Monrovian and a product of its education system by way of Riser Junior High School and West Monroe High School, he wanted to honor his roots. As an homage to his high school stomping grounds, he began by changing the interior’s original yellow and red aesthetic to blue, red, and white. “I loved West Monroe High School,” he asserts, going as far as to have the portrait of legendary West Monroe football coach Don Shows painted on one of the restaurant walls. “He was like a father to me and the community,” says Lewis. Adjacent to the painting hangs a tribute to West Monroe’s defeat of Ruston (32-14) at the 1998 State Championship Games. The vintage frame is replete with classic football imagery and Rebel-themed emblems including the familiar West Monroe helmet, mascot, and the Confederate Battle Flag. In addition to honoring a personally significant local landmark, the space is decorated with a handful of patriotic signs that read, “Proud to be an American,” “God Bless America,” and “In this Place We Always: Salute Our Flag…” Many diners find the aesthetic nostalgic and memorable.
“We also changed the menu,” says Lewis emphatically. Of course, most Coney Island staples remain on the menu, like burgers, tamales, po’ boy, and their chili cheese dog, voted Best Chili Cheese Dog in the ArkLaMiss. Currently, the menu also features fried pickles, fried green beans, specialty burgers, steak fingers, funnel cake fries, frozen lemonade, and Blue Bunny ice cream. “If I go to a restaurant, I would like my food to be hot and fresh. And it’s why we cook to order here. I truly believe that a customer has no problem with waiting four to five minutes for some fresh food versus waiting one to two minutes for some cold food,” he says, attributing this additional effort to how successful his business has gone. Lewis’s favorites include the ham and cheese po’ boy, served on Gambino bread, dressed with mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomatoes, and served with fries and gravy. For dessert, he tends to lean the brownie route. Customers are not shy about voicing their go-to menu items on the business’s Facebook page. One reviewer admitted to cheating on her diet with a turkey and cheese sandwich, which gave her the feeling of “life with no parole.” Another gleamed at the nostalgia it brought her saying, “I was brought back to eating way back to my grandma’s house.” Other posts listed the dive’s sweet potato fries, “famous” patty melt, and Western Burger (topped with fried onion rings, barbeque sauce, bacon, and Swiss cheese). A larger menu has also meant a larger lunch rush. So to meet this rapid growth, Lewis decided to extend the left wing of the restaurant. As a result, the intimate space, which used to seat approximately thirty-two people, now can hold almost seventy. Great for birthday parties or meetings, larger groups can rent the room and privately enjoy classic American staples done right.
Despite the restaurant’s success, Lewis admits he never intended to own a restaurant. His initial pull was to build and expand the community. “I’m a people’s person. I love people. I would say the best part about owning this restaurant is I get to meet new people every day,” he says, adding, “I treat each and every customer the way I want to be treated.” Many customers can attest to this, and many of their Facebook reviews emphasize impeccable customer service. “The way I was raised is when you come into the presence of someone, I was raised to speak,” he emphasizes. The second someone walks into Coney Island Connection, they are welcomed. “That’s what we’re big on here,” he adds, revealing that treating people like family is his way of establishing the kind of connections that turn a restaurant into a community and service-centered cornerstone.
“When God blessed me with this restaurant, it allowed me to expand a whole lot more, like Wi-Fi,” says Lewis. While he had already been providing service to his community, owning the restaurant allowed him to increase his outreach. Once a month, Coney Island Connections feeds a local business for free, as well as local sports teams. Occasionally, he will invite high school kids to clean tables on Saturdays, which helps them make some extra money and keeps them motivated. Recently his team packaged over 200 boxes for local seniors in need. During Thanksgiving, the restaurant gave away free turkeys. Also, Lewis is a supporter of veterans, periodically providing them with free meals. His expansive donations and heart for service seem to know no bounds. In fact, during January’s winter storm, he posted his number on the restaurant’s Facebook page offering road assistance or a ride to work for anyone in need.
“I’m a worker here,” says Lewis, who doesn’t see himself as a boss. “I sweep, I mop, I get on the grill. I do everything they do. You can go out and ask them right now.” His dedication stems from strong family ties, as well as the spectacular circumstances of his success. “Where I come from, this is a miracle,” he says referring to the socio-economic climate of his upbringing. “My mother and father were living paycheck to paycheck, trying to pay the water bill. I remember my mother and father only had one vehicle,” he says. He is grateful to the people of West Monroe, Monroe, and the surrounding areas for choosing Coney Island Connection versus big chain restaurants.
The restaurant business has been a challenging learning curve for Lewis. And while there have been times when he has wanted to give up, questioning what he has gotten himself into, he followed his values to where he is now—put God first, give one hundred percent, and treat people the way you want to be treated. Some doubted his endeavor. “They told me that I was young, and I was black. And I was not going to make it in West Monroe.” But Lewis is a living example that perseverance is key to success.