Past and Present: Nathan’s Famous

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Nathan’s is, of course, a Brooklyn institution. In its long history, its hot dogs have been fed to presidents, kings, and movie stars; more importantly, to millions of everyday Joes and Janes, who have made it the unofficial signature food of the city. You can sneer at it for its common-ness, dismiss it as junk food, or try to substitute it with tofu, but there’s no escaping the fact that Nathan’s is something special to all that is Brooklyn.

The story is a familiar rags to riches, immigrant success story. Nathan’s Famous began in the mind of an enterprising Polish immigrant named Nathan Handwerker. Prior to 1916, he was working at the famous Feltman’s German Gardens, an immensely popular restaurant on Coney Island. Charles Feltman was another success story, a German immigrant who came to the US in 1856 at the age of fifteen. His Coney Island career started with a food pushcart on the beach, but by the early 1900’s, that push cart had grown into an empire that took up an entire city block. Feltman’s entertainment and restaurant complex contained nine restaurants, a beer garden, two enormous bars, a carousel, a roller coaster, an outdoor movie theater, a hotel, a ballroom, a bathhouse, a pavilion, a maple garden and a Tyrolean village. He was now a millionaire many times over.

Today, few people remember the enormity of his business, but they do remember that here in New York, he is credited for the invention of the hot dog. (There are other contenders.) He would later comment that his decision to put a sausage on a roll was not an attempt to invent something new, but was just an expedient way of serving the meat, one that didn’t need expensive silverware, or even a plate. He sold his frankfurters for ten cents, and they quickly became the most popular item on his menu.

Nathan Handwerker, as a worker at Feltman’s, was of course familiar with its famous fare. It was his job to split the rolls, and deliver the franks to the grilling station. Legend has it that he slept on the floor of the restaurant in order to save money for his own business. He wanted to make a better hot dog, and he had just the person to help him – his wife Ida Greenwald Handwerker. She had a recipe enhanced with secret spice ingredients handed down from her grandmother in the Old Country. With the encouragement of fellow Feltman’s employees, pianist Jimmy Durante and singing waiter Eddie Cantor, Nathan and Ida pooled together their savings, and with that $300, went into the hot dog business. In order to make their mark, and drum up their initial business, Nathan’s charged only five cents for their hot dogs, while Feltman’s were twice as much, at ten cents. It worked. The good tasting, cheaper hot dog was an enormous hit.

The dogs were sold at the small Nathan’s Famous stand on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues, beginning in 1916. Nathan was a great idea man, and like all of the great Coney Island entrepreneurs, had more than a bit of the showman in him. He knew that a food like the hot dog would be suspicious to many people, especially in those early days before food inspectors. Ground meat products in casings, like hot dogs and sausages, caused many a raised eyebrow as to their content. They didn’t call it “mystery meat” for nothing. So he devised a two-fold strategy to overcome that stigma.

First, he had all of his servers dress in clean white surgeon’s smocks, to show cleanliness. He then handed out flyers to the local hospitals telling staff that they could eat for free, if they came to Nathan’s in their hospital white uniforms. Soon, long lines of doctors, nurses and aides, all in white, were standing in lines at the stand. Hey, if health professionals ate here in droves, it must be healthy, good food, right? Nathan’s never looked back.

Over the years, the small hot dog stand grew in size, always in the same location. The menu got huge and rather far flung, with clams, oysters, lobster rolls and other seafood added to the menu. French fries, onion rings, roast beef, hamburgers, all kinds of drinks, even chow mein, barbeque and frog’s legs were added at some time or another. Some were dropped, others have stayed on throughout the years. The Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest was an annual staple of Nathan’s since it began in 1916.

Nathan and Ida’s son Murray Handwerker was responsible for taking the business from the iconic Coney Island store to the world in the 1950s. He opened a second branch in Oceanside, NY in 1959, and another in Yonkers, in 1965. More would open in NYC as time went on. He became president of Nathan’s Famous in 1968. In 1987, the family sold out to a group of investors, who franchised the name, opening branches in the greater New York City area and beyond. In 1993, the company went public, naming Nathan and Ida’s grandson, Bill Handwerker, the president. He left the company three years later, ending the family employment at Nathan’s.

Nathan’s Famous on Surf Avenue at Stillwell, has been open every day since 1916. 365 days a year, snow or sun, rain or shine. They know no holidays, and have taken no time off. Any renovations and expansions were done with some part of the restaurant still open for business. That record was broken on October 29, 2012, when Hurricane Sandy dumped six feet of water into the establishment. There were fears the building was too compromised and couldn’t be saved. But, the water was pumped out, and repairs began. Then there was a fire, but Nathan’s Famous refused to die.

It re-opened in the spring of 2013, in time for the Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer. This time, they added something new – well, something old made a comeback, rather. The new Nathan’s has a curbside clam bar again, not seen since the 1950s. It’s a revival of the restaurant’s raw bar, with East Coast oysters and littleneck clams that are shucked on order over a mountain of ice. They are served with chowder crackers, lemon wedges, horseradish and cocktail sauce. That’s cool, but I think I prefer the hot dogs. I like mine with plenty of sauerkraut and mustard. GMAP

1950's Photo: Ebay

1950’s Photo: Ebay

1950s photo: Ebay

1950s photo: Ebay

Nathan's Famous, CI, Jan 2013, Googlemaps

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