If an entire generation of Americans began a love affair with hot dogs on Coney Island, Nathan Handwerker was the undisputed matchmaker.
Handwerker, the founder of Nathan's Famous, immigrated to the United States from Poland with little besides a strong work ethic, which found him decent work in Coney Island restaurants. With a mind to milk the American dream, he borrowed $300 from a singing waiter (Eddie Cantor) and piano player (Jimmy Durante), parlaying a fistful of cash into what would become a hot dog empire.
The iconic Coney Island Nathan's location, opened a century ago on the corner of Surf and Stillwell, would eventually become a nationwide chain with outposts in 10 other countries. Building a restaurant with such a legacy requires an excellent recipe — and a clever game plan.
Defying the conventional dime-a-dog price, Handwerker undercut the competition with 5-cent wieners. To dissuade any rumors of poor quality, the entrepreneur hired actors to don white coats and stethoscopes and scarf hot dogs in front of his eponymous eatery.
Those weren't the only actors frequenting the place; a long-legged Englishman named Carey Grant sold Nathan's hot dogs, fries and Coca-Cola by day, sleeping on potato sacks in the back of the stand at night.
Handwerker begged Grant not to pursue acting, but Grant moved on to Hollywood regardless.
“Nathan thought that was a huge mistake," recalls Wayne Norbitz, a 41-year Nathan's Famous veteran who spent 26 years as the president of the company.
Though Handwerker's entrepreneurial spirit was by all accounts unparalleled, a spice recipe from his wife Ida's family and use of only the best-quality beef helped propel the hot dog stand into an enduring legend, Norbitz says.
“And the essence of the product that really made Nathan's famous has been the same for 100 years, which is really quite unusual," he continues. “The cornerstone of the business of Nathan's and its success really has to do first and foremost with quality."
“As time went by, hot dogs and French fries remained the cornerstone of Nathan's, but the menu got bigger as the Coney Island restaurant got bigger," says Norbitz.
In the ‘40s, the restaurant added a large seafood section and clam bar, later bringing on deli products and pizza. There was also a chow mein sandwich, which capitalized on a growing American taste for “exotic" food.
But the taste for dogs never waned, with Nathan's employees slinging tens of thousands dogs a day by the '30s, in a stand that had ballooned to the size of a city block. “Working for Nathan's was a very hard job because the hot dog stand was very, very busy," Norbitz says. “There was a tremendous demand at all times."
The work was hard but Handwerker, who knew a thing or two about the life of hard-working folk, treated his people well, and even helped finance homes for some of his long-time employees.
“He really appreciated hard work because of his background, and he really rewarded people for working hard and for the loyalty that they exhibited," Norbitz says. “Hundreds of people worked for decades at Coney Island."
The rest, they say, is hot dog history, and Nathan's sold more than 500 million franks last year, becoming the No. 1-selling premium hot dog in the U.S.
But through it all, Nathan's flagship stand has enjoyed a cult-like following that has people arriving by tour bus — even limousine — to eat Nathan's all-beef franks on Coney Island. “That one location is a real institution in New York," Norbitz says.
Nathan's partnership with Coca-Cola has also also endured. Francis Fitzpatrick, a director of sales for the soft drink brand, says the two companies are united in nostalgia.
“Coca-Cola is such an iconic brand, and so is Nathan's," he says.
Both Coca-Cola and Nathan's have enjoyed the benefit of a strong original formula and a consistency that's won over — and kept — customers for years, making both companies part of America's fabric, he continues. “Nathan's hot dogs and Coca-Cola have been a part of that American experience and really resonated and stuck with the public."
Nathan's will celebrate its long-lived popularity this year with upcoming centennial celebrations, including 5-cent hot dogs in Coney Island on Memorial Day weekend and the world-renowned annual July 4th Nathan's Hot Dog Eating contest. Also look for a forthcoming attempt to break a hot dog-themed Guinness world record in Times Square later this year.
Additionally, the restaurant will honor its continuous partnership with Coca-Cola with commemorative cups that speak to the 100-year partnership between the two companies — one that Norbitz says is worth celebrating. “Coca-Cola is a valued partner for us, and it's been that way since the beginning," he says.
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