Updated: 26th April 2018

How Nathan Handwerker Became the Hot Dog King

Nathans, the famous Coney Island purveyor of hot dogs, is celebrating 100 years in business. We spoke to the restaurants founders grandson about its history and its legendary July 4 contest.”>

What would the Fourth of July be without Nathans hot dog eating contest? Eager crowds cheering on competitors with cavernous stomachs who tackle mounds of food at an alarming rate of consumption.

Its a truly American spectacle and completely fitting for the countrys Independence Day celebration.

But even before it was fodder for a special telecast on ESPN (or its highlights worthy of inclusion on SportsCenter) the event was always of interest in my familys home.

From a young age, I knew that there was not only an actual Nathan, Nathan Handwerker that is, but that he was somehow related to my father. The connection was distant, so distant it would possibly take Henry Louis Gates to figure out the necessary extended family tree to connect me with the hot dog king. (From what I have been able to deduce, my great-grandmother was Nathans second or third cousin.)

Nonetheless, I felt a pang of family pride when wed stop at a Nathans location for lunch (and more than likely some video or pinball games for me) or if I saw the familiar green, red and yellow packs of hot dogs at the supermarket.


Courtesy MacMillan Publishers

"Most of the business started at midnight. As soon as all the lights went off all over the place, we got jammed." Nathans Famous during WWII.

But besides the fact that Nathan liked his hot dogs cooked on a griddle and not boiled like at street corner carts or in the old Yankee Stadium and that he preferred bulbous crinkle cut French fries as opposed to McDonalds long, straight ones, I didnt know anything else about him.

In fact, by the time I was old enough to nosh on my own frank with mustard and a pile of sauerkraut he had already passed away and the family had merged the business with fast-food chain Wetsons.

It was one of those family storieslike the one about my grandmother vowing that she shopped at the Breakstones store before the business became a dairy empirethat I vowed to one day investigate.

Fortunately, I wasnt the only one fascinated by Nathans. Just in time for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the original Coney Island location, Nathans grandson, Lloyd Handwerker, just published Famous Nathan. Lloyd spent decades researching his grandfather and the success of his eponymous restaurant and food brand. Ive been working on this for most of my life, he says. I just started recording and talking to my relatives.


Courtesy MacMillan Publishers

At the end of the summer, we used to sit for days and days and count and roll change. That was our profit. Nathans Famous, ready to serve.

In 2014, he released a film documentary about Nathan based on the hundreds of hours of footage he had amassed over the years, which is also called Famous Nathan. But Lloyd had so many other stories and interviews leftover from the project that, with the help of writer Gil Reavill, he turned his trove of family research and anecdotes into an engaging book. There were always more stories, he says. It overwhelmed me.

But the work is more than just a business case study or a rosy-colored family portrait.

(And I imagine it will be interesting to people even not distantly related to the Handwerkers.)

The book, naturally, opens with a recent hot dog eating contest (including the author interviewing a spectator holding up a sign that say Nathan Handwerker is my homeboy) and then traces Nathans life back to his birth in 1890s Poland. Describing his childhood as hardscrabble is putting it politely. Its amazing that he was able to escape the areas abject poverty and institutional antisemitism, which would have been a major achievement even if he never became a business success.

Once he arrived in New York, Nathan proved to be an extremely hard worker and gravitated towards jobs in restaurants. At an early age, he realized that if you worked in the food industry, a major side benefit was that you had something to eat. He definitely knew hunger, says Lloyd. As a result, food was an obsession for him.

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This passion meant that he inspected everything and tried everything that his restaurants served. He would even go up to Maine to find potato farmers whose produce he liked and, according to Lloyd, buy their entire seasons crop, which would be turned into his signature crinkle cut fries.

Those spuds, back in the day, would be peeled and cut by hand with some workers doing that single task for 10 hours straight. To make sure the fries tasted fresh, they would be blanched first in the kitchen and then finished out front in a deep-fryer. He was insistent that the oil be changed frequently to ensure a high-quality product.

Nathans childhood hunger may also be the reason why he was extremely hesitant about raising his prices. Part of his early success was that he sold his dogs for a nickel long after his competitors were charging a dime or more.

Read more: <a href="http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/06/23/how-nathan-handwerker-became-the-hot-dog-king.html">http://www.thedailybeast.com</a>