Nathan’s Famous

A shot of Nathan’s from the 1950’s.

The hot dog was invented by Charles Feltman in 1874.  Although his fabulous restaurant (where the New Luna Park currently sits) is gone the hot dog lives on at Nathan’s on the corner of Stillwell and Surf Avenues.  It is here that a resourceful immigrant bested Feltman’s, once the island’s most successful restaurant.

Between the first and second decades of the Twentieth Century Feltman’s grew from serving 900,000 to 2,000,000 customers.  One famous postcard depicted a clam, lobster, fish, an ear of corn, a hot dog, a crab and a mug of beer all walking to “Feltman’s famous restaurant.”  One person that walked in was Nathan Handwerker (German for hand worker, or “day laborer”), a Manhattan restaurant worker.  He responded to the HELP WANTED ad in the window and within a year (thanks in part to his ability to eat hot dogs for free while on the job) Handwerker had saved over $300 that he invested into the rental of a building at the corners of Stillwell and Surf Avenue.

Nathan Handwerker was born on June 14, 1892.  He traveled to Belgium from Poland at the age of eighteen and two years later he stepped foot on American soil.  He washed dishes and then worked the counter at Max’s Busy Bee in Manhattan.  He started to work weekends at Feltman’s; splitting rolls and making deliveries for the famous restaurant.  Although Feltman invented the hot dog, Handwerker brought it to the masses.  Even today you can still see deep lines at the windows to Nathan’s on a sunny summer day.

The people still line up for a tasty meal.

Coney Island historian Edo McCullough said Nathan installed signs that “shrieked like fire-engine sirens.”  He sold the hot dogs at five cents a-piece, used a twelve-foot grill and put a hint of garlic in his sausages.  Unlike today, many of the passers-by were weary of anyplace that would sell its food at half the price found at Feltman’s; it certainly wasn’t the Coney tradition.  So, many passed by Nathan’s stand for the restaurant further down Surf Avenue.  Using the island’s spirit for inspiration Handwerker hired bums to stand around the counter and paid them in hot dogs in order to give the impression he was busy.  The crowds, seeing only unkempt patrons, still stayed away.  Nathan then took the concept to the next level, had the bums shave themselves and wear doctor’s outfits so they looked well-off.  McCullough said that a new sign above the establishment proclaimed, “If doctors eat our hot dogs, you know they’re good!”

The Stillwell Avenue subway station opened in the 1920’s and Nathan’s benefited from its position directly across Surf Avenue.  Crowds flocked to the new “Nickel Empire” of Coney and the simple stand grew into a full-scale service center with dozens of cashiers and long lines.  Author Joseph Heller said, “On every occasion when I go back to Coney Island the first place I go is Nathan’s and often the last place is Nathan’s for another bag of potatoes.”  In 1939 the island celebrated one of its most famous residents by having National Hot Dog Day.  One speaker said, “It is difficult to measure the contribution the hot dog has made to the fame and popularity of this great resort.”  Feltman’s, like much of the island’s old guard, made little money in the post-war era and closed in 1954.  The beach was no longer a place for sit down restaurants and the new “fast food” concept put forth by Nathan had completely taken over.  One year later on July 6, 1955 the stand sold its one millionth hot dog.

1955 also marked the first year that Nathan’s expanded.  That year a Long Beach branch opened at Oceanside and ten years later another debuted in Yonkers.  The company continued to grow with time and now the famous hot dog can be found in amusement parks, malls and even the grocery store.  One large period of expansion was in 1987 when several private investors backed the opening of many locations.  However, some of the larger stores proved too costly so the company “downsized,” offering instead small shops with less counter space and lower overhead.  The company went public in 1993 but has never seen terrific gains on the stock market.  Three years later Bill Handwerker, Nathan’s grandson, left the company for a life outside of hot dogs.  One of the most popular events at Nathan’s during the last decade has been their hot dog eating contest.  It has been held every July 4th since the stand opened.  In 2001 Takeru Kabayashi of Nagano, Japan consumed 50 hot dogs and pushed the Nathan’s record higher than many thought possible.

Although times have changed the fact remains that Nathan’s offers some great food.  From its seafood to lemonade to Manhattan clam chowder the large stand at Surf & Stillwell Avenues still sells over one million hot dogs each year.  It is open all year and around the clock so customers can visit even when there is seemingly no one else at Coney.  With the addition of the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league team in the summer of 2001 more customers, and a new generation of patrons, began discovering Coney Island and its famous hot dogs.  Through it all Nathan’s is a story of perseverance.  Even though the times have changed few things beat stepping off the subway and heading straight for that delicious aroma.

“It [Nathan’s] was a plethora of great smells- I’m salivating thinking about it.  It’s what attracted you to.  You had to go there to eat!” – Martin Landau

Works Cited

“Coney Island.”  60 minutes.  Termite Art Productions, 1999.  Videocassette.

“Famous Nathan: Nathan Handwerker.”  The New York Times.  August 3, 1966.  25.

Grimes, William.  “A Man, a Plan, a Hot Dog: Birth of Nathan’s.”  The New York Times.  January 25, 1998.

“Hot Dog Eating Record Shattered.”  July 5, 2001.

McCullough, Edo.  Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey into the Past.  New York, New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1957.

Stein, Harvey.  Coney Island.  New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998.

Steinberg, Carol.  “Changes at Nathan’s Go Beyond Menu.”  The New York Times.  June 28, 1998.