Nathan’s Famous has been “more than just the best hot dog” since 1916. In fact, the Coney Island-based chain is one of the original fast-food restaurants. The products are available in all 50 states, and around the world from Egypt to Malaysia. But beyond its delicious sausages and huge impact lies a rich untapped history.
Read more below and join us for a tour of the Secrets of Coney Island, where you’ll learn about the secrets of not just Nathan’s but the fascinating, lesser known history of the entire area.
10. Nathan’s Famous Has The Oldest Beer License in NYC
Dating back to 1934, Nathan’s Famous’ beer license is the oldest in all of New York City. The business acquired it directly after the end of prohibition. To celebrate access to alcohol again, Nathan Handwerker, the founder and then-owner, gave away free beer in a block party type event.
9. Nathan’s Was a Victim of 9/11
Image byvia Library of Congress
In a food court on the 107th floor of 2 World Trade Center was a Nathan’s Famous store. Prior to the attacks on September 11th, customers could enjoy a sauerkraut and onion dog from the tall food court’s observatory floor. Needless to say, their location was destroyed and never reopened. Looking forward, many patrons think it would be nice to see a new Nathan’s Famous at the World Trade Center site.
8. Nathan’s Famous Once Employed Cary Grant
Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
The famed actor Cary Grant used to make and serve french fries to customers between acting gigs. Though his work ethic was surely stellar as an actor, he was caught several times napping on sacks of potatoes at Nathan’s.
7. The Truth About FDR Serving Nathan’s Hot Dogs
President Franklin Roosevelt with visiting King George VI. Photo via Wikimedia Commons from FDR Presidential Library & Museum.
Legend has it that back in 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt served Nathan’s Famous hot dogs to the King and Queen of England. In fact, Nathan’s own website reiterates this claim and goes as far as to say the famous dogs were sent to the Yalta Conference as well. Sadly, the popular belief is wrong. On May 20, 2011, the New York Times corrected a previous story of theirs claiming the legend to be true. Reed Abelson, author of the article, stated that the hot dogs actually “came from Swift & Company, not from Nathan’s.” Though it has yet to be verified, the claim that Nathan’s hot dogs made an appearance at Yalta is also doubtful, given the debunking of the first encounter.
6. The Neon Signs are Original
The neon signs of Nathan’s Famous at sundown
The neon signs that illuminate dark stretches of Surf and Stillwell avenues are original, dating back to the 1920s. Having been kept in great condition, the lights still work and bring in tourists and locals alike towards the familiar sights and smells of the storied boardwalk comfort food.
5. Nathan’s Hired Homeless People
There is some speculation as to the origin of the term “hot dog.” Some historians believe it came from snide insinuations that some stores’ processed meats were so unhealthy, they might as well be dog meat. Nathan Handwerker must have been aware of this. Homeless people (and actors) were hired by the fast-food entrepreneur to impersonate doctors and nurses sitting at Nathan’s counter eating the sausages. It was a trick, but a successful trick at that, bringing in thousands of customers to the Coney Island location every weekend.
4. The Hot Dog Eating Contest Began As a PR Ploy
The hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s is now world-renowned, but not many people know of its original intention: a public relations stunt. As Justin Rivers, our Secrets of Coney Island tour guide explains “Nathan’s grabbed some people and had them sit at a table to stage a hot dog eating contest. It was by suggestion of a neighborhood kid who went into PR: Max Rosy. He said if Nathan’s staged a photo op he could get into the Post.” Lo and behold, a defining tradition in western food culture began.
3. Nathan’s Famous Wasn’t the First
Feltman’s restaurant in Coney Island. Image from Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth
Before Nathan Handwerker became one of the most recognizable men in Brooklyn, he worked as a humble employee of an immigrant-owned German sausage haus, Feltman’s. When Handwerker left Feltman’s to open his own hot dog eatery, he undercut his former employer’s pricing by 50%. Instead of selling his hot dogs at 10 cents each, the Feltman’s price, Nathan’s would sell them at just 5 cents, leading to the boom that launched Handwerker’s business.
2. 300 Dollars Is All it Took to Start Nathan’s Famous
New registers line the inside counter of Nathan’s Famous, a benefit from an investment made long ago
Though you may not believe it, famous singers Jimmy Durante and Eddy Cantor were the funding source for Nathan’s Famous’ first location, a moving hot dog cart. Handwerker used to work with Cantor and Durante at Feltman’s. As legend has it, they urged him to start his own business, offering a $300 loan as a capital investment.
10. The Nathan’s Family Feud
The Handwerker family became pretty divided, according to Famous Nathan, a documentary directed by Nathan Handwerker’s grandson, Lloyd. The family feuded started when Murray and Sol, sons of Nathan, didn’t see eye-to-eye in the future direction of the company. Regardless, older brother Murray went ahead and expanded the business to his vision. The company has since extended its reach to countries as far as Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Panama, and Malaysia. Sol separated from Nathan’s Famous and opened a store on 34th Street in Manhattan. It closed in 1977.
Next, check out the many secrets of Coney Island and discover the difference between Papaya King and Gray’s Papaya: When did Papayas and Hot Dogs Become an NYC Trend? Get in touch with the author @HeySamCampbell.