In 1912, a Jewish-Polant immigrant named Nathan Handwerker migrated to New York City. Shortly after his arrival, he began to work at a restaurant called Feltman’s German Gardens on Coney Island, Brooklyn. In 1916, he and his wife, Ida, opened up their own hot dog stand on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues. It cost them three hundred dollars to embark on this venture. This came about after customers complained Feltman’s asking price for his brand of hotdogs was too much. Using their own hot dog recipe creation, combined with Ida’s grandmother’s secret spice recipe, the all-beef “kosher style” weiners were born. Now as Feltman’s competition, Nathan’s Famous humble hot dog stand sold his creation at five cents each, which was half the amount his former employer was selling for.
Shortly after Nathan and Ida Handwerker opened up shop, the competition began to spread rumors about their product. In 2017, a group of college students was hired to dress up as medical personnel and stand around Nathan’s, consuming the company’s brand of hot dogs. This marketing genius spread the word if doctors from Coney Island Hospital find nothing wrong with Nathan’s Famous hot dogs, then this debunks the myths laid out by the competitors.
Not only did the Handwerkers rely on college students to promote Nathan’s, but they also hired pretty young women, as well as celebrities. In 1921, there was a hit song recorded and released by Sophie Tucker titled “Nathan, Nathan, Why You Waitin’?”
The same year Frank’s Famous Hot Dogs opened up shop on Coney Island, there were four immigrants that competed against each other in a hot dog eating contest. Little did these four men know this would become an annual Independence Day tradition held since 1972. Jason Schechter managed to win it all by eating fourteen hot dogs in 1916. However, this was a small amount compared to what qualifies as a contest winner today.
From 2001 until 2006, Takeru Kobayashi was the undefeated champion. This came to an end in 2007 when Joey Chestnut dethroned him as the hot dog-eating king. In 2008, a determined Kobayashi attempted to eat his way back on top. Although he did tie with Chestnut with fifty-nine hot dogs, he was unable to overcome Chestnut’s ability to consume all five hot dogs faster than him in the contest’s tiebreaker. Until 2014, Chestnut remained the new undefeated champion.
In a surprise victory on July 4, 2015, Matt Stonie managed to eat sixty-two hot dogs in ten minutes. This was two more than Chestnut was able to do. However, this was only a minor hiccup for Chestnut as he came back on top in 2016. Since then, he has yet to be dethroned as of July 4, 2022. Joey Chestnut is also the world record holder for consuming seventy-four hot dogs in 2018.
Looking to sell more than hot dogs, Nathan’s Famous expanded its menu selection to include seafood in 1946. This came about after Nathan’s son, Murray, returned from serving in the American military in Europe. It was brought to the family’s attention that exposure to French cuisine brought about the potential to add new items to Nathan’s menu. Quickly, Nathan’s also became famous for its clam bar. A few years later, fried frog legs found themselves joining the menu’s roster. To this day, this food item is sold exclusively from Nathan’s Famous original location.
In 2019, not showing any sign of slowing down, Nathan’s Famous also began a venture, thanks to Pat LaFrieda and Nathan’s New York Cheesesteak. Since then, Nathan’s has also begun to sell additional food items such as burgers, chicken, milkshakes, and many other all-time American favorites.
When the New York subway extended to Coney Island in 1923, crowds trekked their way over to Coney Island to get their hands on Nathan’s hot dogs. Regardless if the person was an average New Yorker or a big-name celebrity, they couldn’t seem to get enough of a product that was superior in quality and superior in taste.
In 1936, an impressed President Franklin D. Roosevelt took it upon himself to introduce Nathan’s Famous hot dogs to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth while at a lawn party held in New York’s Hyde Park. He was one of many politicians who relied on Nathan’s Famous as a public relations stunt to win over the approval of the voting public.
Nathan’s Famous, Inc. began to franchise as a chain, thanks to Nathan’s son, Murray. A second location opened in Oceanside in 1959 on Long Beach Road, followed by a 1965 opening in Yonkers. In 1968, Murray Handwerker was named company president as Nathan’s Famous, Inc. went public. Three years later, Times Square become the fourth restaurant to join Nathan’s Famous, Inc.’s roster. Upon realizing the company could expand its reach beyond restaurant locations, Nathan’s Famous hot dogs began to sell as a supermarket grocery item in 1983.
On March 24, 1974, Nathan Handwerker passed away at eighty-three years old, two years after passing the torch to his son, Murray. At the Coney Island Young Men’s Young Women’s Hebrew Association, its playground was dedicated as the Nathan and Ida Handwerker Playground in the couple’s honor. With Murray Handwerker at the helm, the 1947 graduate from New York University expanded Nathan’s Famous hot dogs beyond the city limits by making it a nationally accessible product. By the time he died at eighty-nine years old on May 11, 2011, Nathan’s Famous, Inc. had become a globally accessible brand. However, by that time Nathan’s Famous, Inc. was no longer owned by the Handwerkers as the family business was sold to a team of private investors in 1987.
The selling of Nathan’s Famous, Inc. came about after the company experienced hardship in 1981. The stock value of Nathan’s plummeted as low as one dollar per share, forcing Nathan’s to close some of its restaurants down. It also experienced some franchising issues before selling the family business to the New York-based private investment company known as Equicor Group Ltd. Immediately afterward, Murray Handwerker went into retirement and headed south for Florida.
At first, Equicor’s financial portfolio ran into a rough patch. Just when it looked as if Nathan’s was about to sink into obscurity, a new CEO for Equicor Group Ltd., Wayne Norbitz, took over. It didn’t take long before the direction of Equicor and Nathan launched in a positive direction. The dream to expand Nathan’s Famous hot dog chain finally became a reality as soon as the financial portfolio improved. Soon afterward, this same private investment company also purchased Kenny Rogers Roasters and Miami Subs Grill.
By the fall of 2001, Nathan’s owned twenty-four company-owned establishments. It also had 380 franchised locations and over 1,400 stores between fifty states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and seventeen foreign nations. In 2006, the company signed international master franchise agreements with Egypt and Israel.
Nowadays, Nathan’s Famous, Inc. is owned and managed by Smithfield Foods, a subsidiary belonging to WH Group from China. WH Group acquired Smithfield Foods in 2013, which brought about concerns about Nathan’s future as a globally respected hot dog franchise with Jewish American roots.
Still Making Big Impressions
In 2014, began sponsorship of Richard Petty Motorsports. Its first race was held at the historic Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania. Two years later, as part of the company’s centennial celebration, Nathan’s Famous surprised a fan at the Pocono Raceway with a Giant gift card valued at one thousand dollars, as well as a free year’s worth of the company’s hot dogs. This came about after the recipient, Kathi Taylor, shared her personal story on the company’s website with childhood memories that revolved around their iconic brand. Also in 2016, Nathan’s Famous earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest line of hot dogs.
As of March 28, 2017, Nathan’s Famous, Inc. earned a sponsorship deal with Major League Baseball. Now the official brand was allowed to sell its hot dogs throughout the league, this expanded the company’s reach beyond the teams of the New York Mets, New York Yankees, Miami Marlins, and St. Louis Cardinals. Despite the sponsorship, this doesn’t prohibit teams from striking similar deals with the competition. However, this deal was the first of its kind with the league.
Coney Island Landmarks
Aside from the original location’s presence at the infamous Coney Island, Nathan’s Famous, Inc. also has a smaller hot dog stand that operates on Coney Island Boulevard. There was a unit located in Two World Trade Center but it was lost when the 9/11 terrorist attack destroyed the Twin Towers in 2001. However, this iconic fast food chain has stood the test of time, despite the efforts of its competition to put Nathan’s Famous out of business.
The original Nathan’s Famous, Inc. hot dog stand still remains on the infamous corner of Brooklyn’s Surf and Stillwell Avenues. Normally, the establishment kept its doors open daily, without fail until October 29, 2012. It was the year Hurricane Sandy impacted New York City and its neighbors. Aside from a six-month shutdown to repair the damage, Nathan’s Famous, Inc. still stands at the exact location where it all began. This Jewish American classic not only earns its name in history as the nation’s legendary hot dog brand but as the true founding father of the fast food industry. At the time, Nathan’s Famous hot dogs were considered a grab joint where customers could come and go without having to wait in line for long to snatch and bite into this inexpensive food item. Although they’re no longer five cents each anymore, they’re still among the best hot dogs money can buy.
History Of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs At Coney Island article published on ClassicNewYorkHistory.com© 2022
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