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Family, fans gather to celebrate Regas' 50 years of serving Coneys in Duluth

Sherman Frederick (center) of Duluth eats a Coney dog on Thursday morning while competing in the Deluxe Coney Island Coney-eating competition at Miller Hill Mall in Duluth. Sherman won the competition by eating 11 Coney dogs in 20 minutes. (Clint Austin / / 3
Deluxe Coney Island owner Peter Regas of Duluth gestures while speaking during a 50th anniversary celebration for his business at Miller Hill Mall in Duluth on Thursday morning. (Clint Austin / / 3
David Rutherford of Duluth unwraps his second bag of Coney dogs on Thursday morning while competing in the Deluxe Coney Island Coney-eating competition at Miller Hill Mall in Duluth. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 3

Sherman Frederick’s diet has been a little out of whack lately.

The burly Duluth man woke up early Wednesday morning to chow down on a heaping batch of homemade macaroni and cheese. He skipped lunch and dinner — didn’t even think about dessert — and when he finally gave in to his hunger Thursday morning, he did so by nibbling on a granola bar.

“I prepared for this one,” said Frederick, whose quirky strategy paid off in the form of a first-place finish Thursday at the inaugural hot dog-eating contest at the Coney Island Deluxe in the Miller Hill Mall. The competition was part of a morning-long celebration for Coney Island owner Peter Regas, who has spent 50 years slinging hot dogs in Duluth — first at the Coney Island downtown, and then at his restaurant in the mall’s food court.

“I like to see people, to serve them, to hug them,” said Regas, who was joined at the celebration by more than 100 friends and family members. “Some of these people I’ve known for 50 years. I love them. They love me.”

Regas said he had two wishes for the contest: for everyone to eat a lot of Coneys, and for no one to get sick.

“You can never get sick of the Coneys,” he said.

Frederick was teetering on sickness after he stopped stuffing Coney after Coney into his mouth.

Decked out in a purple Superman

T-shirt and a red kilt, he downed more than 10 hot dogs — fully loaded with Coney sauce, mustard and onions — in 20 minutes.

“I’m full,” Frederick said after stepping off the stage. “Just full.”

He wasn’t alone.

Frederick competed against nine other eaters, some of whom gave Frederick a run for his money, while others appeared to be treating the contest as if it were a leisurely lunch.

“The first two are actually enjoyable,” Frederick said of the Coneys, which he started to dip in water toward the end of the contest. He said that helped them slide down.

“After (the first two), it just gets really tough, and you don’t want to keep doing it.”

Frederick has been no stranger to Coneys over the years. He used to work at Pretzel Maker, which is situated right next to Coney Island in the mall. Every day when he came to work, Regas was there to greet him, Frederick said.

“He’s always been super happy and cheerful,” Frederick said. “He’s a great guy. I love him.”

Regas has been the “Coney Island Man” ever since he moved to Duluth in the early 1960s. He grew up in Greece, spent time traveling the world and eventually wound up in Duluth, where one of his brothers owned and operated the Coney Island Deluxe downtown.

Having an “in” with the owner, Regas had little trouble landing (and keeping) a job.

“It was fun with my brother downtown,” Regas said. “It was a different atmosphere.”

When Miller Hill Mall expanded to include a food court in 1988, Regas saw an opportunity to open another Coney Island Deluxe.

“I’ve kept it going,” he said. “I’m still here.”

Coney Island was one of the first restaurants to set up shop at the food court, according to Colin Bates, a longtime security officer at the mall. Bates also handled various maintenance jobs for the mall during the food court expansion, which brought in a lot of hungry customers.

“The lines – they were so long,” Bates recalled. “We were building food court furniture as fast as we could so people had a place to sit.”

Bates himself has been known to indulge in a Coney hot dog or two during his more than 30 years working for mall security, he said.

“I’ve had my fair share.”

As for Regas, who turns 73 next month, there are no plans to retire. Last September he turned over business operations to his son-in-law, Victor Regas, but he still works between 20 and 25 hours each week.

Victor Regas, who organized Thursday’s celebration, said Peter Regas has developed a reputation among regular customers in Duluth, as well as visitors passing through.

“He doesn’t always remember everyone’s name,” Victor Regas said. “But he never has forgotten a face.”

Victor Regas said his father-in-law intends to let “the God retire him.” Until then, he plans to stick around the only job he has known for the past 50 years.

“It’s too late for me to do anything else,” he said.