The Brooklyn Historical Society is in the midst of its summer programs occurring every week until late August. On June 28, they welcomed Lloyd Handwerker, who presented his documentary about a noteworthy New York City site: Nathan’s Famous on Coney Island.
Lloyd Handwerker is the grandson of Nathan Handwerker, who was the man behind what many consider the country’s best hot dog. While his documentary Famous Nathan premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, the Brooklyn Historical Society’s screening was to promote his new book, Famous Nathan: A Family Saga of Coney Island, the American Dream, and the Search for the Perfect Hot Dog.
“I felt tremendous guilt about not having recorded more of my grandfather’s stories. And so, I did the second best thing: I just happened to have been a photographer, studying in Rochester and took a video class,” said Lloyd Handwerker. “The book and the film are very different. I would say the film is more personal, more of a journey of a grandson trying to understand something about his family. The book is more informational.”
But both draw a crowd due to the simple fact that Nathan’s is a Brooklyn staple, so much so that a crowd poured into the tiny theater, forcing the Brooklyn Historical Society’s workers to pull more chairs out of the closet to accommodate. Simply, Nathan’s hot dog is as synonymous with New York City as the Yankees, making it a must-visit for all tourists.
Nathan’s Famous original location in Coney Island circa 1920. Photo via Nathan’s
“Last week, my cousins were here from Budapest and we were in Brooklyn. So I said, ‘Let’s go to Nathan’s,’” said event attendee Robert Sands, 63. “I figured they needed a true, real American hot dog.”
The documentary also brings to light the personality of Lloyd’s grandfather. He was beloved by nearly all of his employees – many of whom would work for him to the day they retired or passed away. One interviewee remarked that he did not know how Nathan got people to work so hard. He may have been illiterate, yet he knew how to run a business.
“He really was obsessive about the whole operation,” said Lloyd Handwerker. “He was there every day, working very long hours. There are crazy stories about him coming back, even in his 60’s, once a week at 3 a.m. in disguises. [He stood] in line, just so he could listen to what the customers were saying about the service and the food.”
Crowd surrounding Nathan’s Famous. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Nathan would even test the new hot dogs. If they did not meet his strict requirements, he would send whole trucks back, according to his grandson. This fanatical behavior is what kept the business afloat. The only thing that he was ever wrong about, in Lloyd’s opinion, was the exclusion of seafood, which he feared would drive away customers who ate kosher.
However, the best nugget of information was delivered midway through the Q&A session, when someone asked, “Are Nathan’s hot dogs the same as when it first opened?”
“I won’t say that they are not good hot dogs. I’m not a hot dog expert,” said Lloyd Handwerker. “[But] I don’t think it’s the same. I say that because I brought managers down there, who’ve eaten them for 40 years, and they tell me they’re not the same.”
To see the rest of the summer lineup for the Brooklyn Historical Society, which includes a Brooklyn on Screen series, check out their calendar.