The Smith family sells Coney Island Diner to the Lucas couple
Thousands of times over the past three decades, Jim and Cathy Smith have locked the door of the Coney Island Diner, washed up, and gone home for the day.
On Thursday, however, they handed over the key — and the tradition — to another local couple.
“It’s bittersweet,” Jim said. “My heart says stick with the clients, but the body says it’s time to retire.”
The couple purchased the restaurant at 98 N. Main St. in 1992. It opened in 1936.
The iconic restaurant in the Carousel District was closed on Friday, but only so Greg and Aubrey Caugherty could get all the paperwork changed on their behalf.
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It will be an emotional transition for everyone involved.
Cathy has already begun to miss the clients she has become friends with over the years.
“They’re more than just customers,” she said.
History of downtown dining
The Smiths served residents and visitors to the city for most of their lives.
“We spent 30 years at the Coney and a total of 42 years downtown,” Jim said. “We took over the Yellow Deli and changed its name to Smitty’s Underground. We bought the Coney in 1992 and then in 1996 we came here to work.”
The site has become famous among filmmakers and politicians. The walls of the restaurant are decorated with many historical memorabilia.
The last day of activity for the Smiths of Mansfield was June 30.
The Smiths are the restaurant’s third owners, and now the Caughertys will be the fourth owners when they transition and reopen the restaurant on July 18.
Long family tradition of service
Jim and Cathy’s two daughters both worked in the business. Courtney goes to work with her husband Ryan at his company Eldridge & Co., and Tara works at Richland County Children Services as a program director and is married to Nate Lautzenhiser.
The Smiths’ granddaughter, Grace Lautzenhiser, who works at the Coney Island Diner, attends Lexington High School and Ashland University.
Before going into business, Jim Smith said he was first going to be a drummer for a famous rock band.
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Cathy was going to be an elementary school teacher.
They have experienced the ups and downs of owning a business, including weathering the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another downtime came in January 2012, when the restaurant closed for seven months after the overhead sprinkler system failed.
The restaurant’s secret coney sauce recipe will be passed on to the new owners.
“You have to do it five gallons at a time,” he said, noting that he won’t do it often in retirement, much to the youngest daughter’s dismay.
The couple, who are both slim, still eat cones.
Jim eats it three or four times a week just to ensure quality control.
Cathy still eats it from time to time.
Employees watch him eat them and love how he says the exact same thing every time.
“Are they on the menu? If not, they should be. They’re the best jerks I’ve ever had,” he laughed. “They always roll their eyes and repeat after me.”
Mansfield workers’ lunchtime favorite
The mix of atmosphere, staff, and food has made the Coney Island Diner a longtime lunch for employees who work in Mansfield, including Scott King, President and CEO of Gorman Rupp.
“The service is fast,” he said. “You can walk in and out of there. And you kind of meet everyone in town while you’re there.”
For the past twelve years, he has visited the restaurant at least once a week for some of this favorite cuisine in town.
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“The regular staples,” King said. “The pea salad, cones, root beer and ginger ale. I think the ginger ale is probably my favorite.”
He is happy that the restaurant will continue to serve customers for years to come and he is happy to have known the Smith family so well for over a decade.
“Some of the hardest working people at Mansfield,” King said. “They have certainly deserved a good retirement. I’m also happy to see them reach this point. I wish them the best of luck and hope they have a long and enjoyable retirement.”
“Nothing will change”
The baton has officially passed to Greg and Aubrey Caugherty, who grew up together in Lucas. They both graduated from Lucas High School in 2000.
“High school sweethearts,” Greg said.
They have both been served many times by the Smiths over the years.
“It’s good food and it’s always fast,” Greg said. “I love the vibe. It’s exactly what I always thought I would own and run one day, I just didn’t think it would be this soon.”
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When the restaurant reopens on July 18, all paperwork and licenses will transfer to the Caughertys, but everything else will remain the same.
“We like it that way and we want to continue in the same tradition and style,” Greg said. “Nothing will change.”