“It’s about untying knots. Every day you’re going to come across knots and you just have to sit there and figure out the best way to untie those knots.” These words of wisdom come from Chuck Lovelady, owner of Chuck’s Coney Island at 10th and Parker. Chuck’s opened in 2016 and has quickly become a recognizable and popular spot on the East 10th Street corridor. The IndyEast Promise Zone is working with local partners to support small businesses on the Near Eastside as part of a larger effort to cultivate strong and sustainable commercial corridors. Places like Chuck’s Coney Island are a key part of these emerging hubs, and neighbors are taking notice.
Shops like Chuck’s are spaces where residents and those in the larger Indianapolis community can get a hot meal, interact with neighbors, and keep local money in local hands. “I hear people come in and say, ‘I’m glad you’re here,’” says Chuck. “It’s becoming a staple of the community. A lot of people don’t have cars and where can they go to eat? I have families come in here every day. I feel good that I’m able to provide a service…They see it’s a family-owned business.”
Chuck moved to Indianapolis from Detroit in 2005 and initially set up a clothing store in the space next to what is now Coney Island. “I was basically at home here. Think about it, 2005, people were like you’re opening up a store on 10th street?! That’s like Beirut! But to me it’s just another day in the neighborhood.” The perception of East 10th street across Indianapolis in some ways remains a negative one. Those who have not been to the Near Eastside in a while have missed out on the uptick in positive activity, whether it be revitalized housing, new businesses, or community engagement programs. Chuck’s Coney Island is one of multiple businesses that are changing perceptions within and outside the neighborhood. New businesses provide existing residents with new amenities, while simultaneously attracting visitors who discover long established gems on the Near Eastside.
Chuck says that 10th street feels a lot like Detroit in many positive ways. “Where I grew up in Detroit, there’s a lot of family-owned businesses, people walking up and down the street. A lot of entrepreneurs striving to keep their head above water. And you see those same businesses there for 30 to 40 years.”
One of those entrepreneurs was Chuck’s uncle who owned a hand car wash and restaurant. “He was open 364 days and even though he has passed, to this day his business is still up and going.” Chuck’s father worked at GM for over 35 years, but recognized that that might not be the best path for his son. Chuck had already shown a penchant for entrepreneurship when he and his friend operated a car speaker business as teenagers. He chose the life of an entrepreneur because he had a knack for it and because it offered the independence that Chuck has always valued.
Now, Chuck works with his own children, instilling in them the values of independence and perseverance he learned from his uncle. His son was actually the one that encouraged a Coney Island shop instead of the originally planned pizza joint. But it’s not always glamorous. “I asked my son, ‘You remember when we were painting and it was cold and we were having a good time?’” His son replied, “You were probably having a good time!” Because of their hard work, Chuck and his family are building institutions together in their adopted home on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis.
An extended family of neighbors has also been crucial to Chuck’s business success. He met many people from one of his businesses already up and running, Classic Cuts Barbershop, who would eventually help him open Coney Island. “Owning the barber shop brought me closer to this community than anything because it’s just lots of people coming in, all walks of life, all different backgrounds. Fellow Detroiters would come in and I’d ask them, what do you miss about home? And it was Coney dogs. I met my electrician and my plumber at the barbershop. And look what happened. It’s a journey.” Being responsive to the wants and needs of the community has endeared Chuck to his neighbors and helped him become a successful entrepreneur.
Chuck’s Coney Island is now a mecca for Northern Indiana and Michigan natives living in the area looking for a taste of home. Detroit style Coney dogs consist of Vienna sausage topped with beef chili sauce, mustard, and onions. “In Detroit, everybody was raised on Coney Islands: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack.” But it’s not just former Detroiters coming in. Chuck says he gets people from all over the city from Broad Ripple to Geist and beyond. In the same few minutes he’ll see someone with only the few bucks it takes to buy one Coney dog walk in right after someone who pulled up in a luxury car. Seeing these diverse elements of the community together in his shop is another reason he values East 10th Street, and it’s an important reason why he does what he does. Food brings people together.As we were talking, a new customer came in and exclaimed how surprised she was at just how many different things were on the menu and promised to come back with co-workers. Chuck hopes to improve the space so it is more comfortable for gathering. “Since the neighborhood is changing, I can honestly say more people are coming into the store. People will come in regularly for their lunch break and so we’re looking to expand seating.” More seating will help make Chuck’s Coney Island more inviting, while creating another gathering place for neighbors to meet. This helps contribute to making the Near Eastside a regional destination.
We asked Chuck what success looks like for him: “You’re successful when you’re doing it. You are already successful when you’re pursuing what you want to do.” As for the future of Chuck’s Coney Island, he said, “Recently, I had a couple investors that wanted to open up another one. I want to just get this one down pat before I move on to the next step, but a chain of Chuck’s Coney Islands would be successful for me. I would feel great about that.”