An antique bicycle hangs from the ceiling above the doorway. Five booths, four bar stools, two counter tops and one kitchen furnish the first floor of Original Coney Island. Rand Sola walks through the narrow isle, grabs a cup of hot coffee, hangs up his coat and sits down at the farthest booth to the back.
“It’s tough to create character,” Sola said. “Luckily this place came with a lot of it.”
Sola is the owner of Original Coney Island located at 107 E. Superior St. He earned his degree in finance from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1992 before he became part owner of the restaurant along with his father, Dale, and older brother, Steve. They also bought the three other store-fronts and the entire second floor of the building in 2008.
The building was originally built in 1907 as one of the many hotels located along Superior Street. It was known as the Grant Hotel which housed 33 rooms and only two bathrooms. Now those rooms above the restaurant will become offices as early as May of this year.
“Coney Island has been a continuously operating restaurant since 1921,” Sola said, “making it the second oldest restaurant in Duluth next to the Pickwick.”
The quaint eatery serves breakfast in the morning. Later in the day they serve up burgers along with “Coney” style hotdogs, meaning that they are served with bean-less chili sauce, mustard, onions, and absolutely no ketchup.
“In my opinion, the restaurant was on the ropes and poorly run when we bought it,” Sola said. “So it took a lot to get it to this point and it still has a lot more to get it to where we want it financially.”
The restaurant has been refurnished. They have added a new roof, heating system and windows after gutting the place to its core.
“We put a whole new face to the building,” Sola said. “It was a pretty sketchy place before.”
As a small business owner, Sola struggles to find time for his various businesses. Not only does he own Coney Island and the building, Sola also co-owns the South Pier Inn Hotel near the Arial Lift Bridge, the South Pier Shores Condominiums and the South Pier Light, the smallest lighthouse next to the bridge.
“He’s very thorough, and it’s like the old saying goes: he cleans the corners and the rest of it cleans itself,” said Steve Sola, his older brother.
Over the phone, Steve claims that he himself may be more of a risk-taker, but is happy to have a brother there preventing him from making any mistakes.
“We have always believed that we should invest in things you like, and profit will follow,” said Steve.
“All my businesses are small and they generally can’t afford to have a staff or management so a lot of things fall on me,” Rand Sola said. “Whether it is a clogged pipe here, an accountant needing something over there, to a housing inspector needing to look at something, all of these problems seem to happen in the same 15 minutes. A lot of small businesses add up to a lot of time and demands. And it’s a challenge to organize that in an effective way.”
Rand Sola still finds several rewarding aspects as a business owner, even though he battles with the work load.
“It’s wonderful to watch an employee grow based on the experience from something you’ve created,” Sola said.
Joel Graff is the current manager at Original Coney Island. As an experienced restaurant employee, he believes Sola is committed to transforming the building into one of Duluth’s hotspots.
“There is a move to clean it up for more clientele to stop in,” Graff said. “Rand spends an adequate amount of time here and is easy to work with.”
“People don’t know what they are getting into when they see this place, but they leave excited to come back,” Sola said. “And the fact that you created that experience is rewarding.”
A lot of minor details play a large part in owning a small business. Even though Sola is ready for a break, there is still a lot of work to be done until the building is complete.
“Business is always constant. It never goes away until you sell it,” said Sola.
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