Family Business

How Nathan Handwerker Became the Hot Dog King

Nathan’s, the famous Coney Island hot dog seller, is celebrating 100 years. We spoke to the restaurant’s founder’s grandson about its history and its legendary July 4 contest.

Lloyd Handwerker Collection

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

It’s a truly American spectacle and completely fitting for the country’s 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 family’s 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 Nathan’s second or third cousin.)

Nonetheless, I felt a pang of family pride when we’d stop at a Nathan’s 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.

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 McDonald’s long, straight ones, I didn’t 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 Wetson’s.

It was one of those family stories—like the one about my grandmother vowing that she shopped at the Breakstone’s store before the business became a dairy empire—that I vowed to one day investigate.

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one fascinated by Nathan’s. Just in time for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the original Coney Island location, Nathan’s grandson, Lloyd Handwerker, just published Famous Nathan. Lloyd spent decades researching his grandfather and the success of his eponymous restaurant and food brand. “I’ve been working on this for most of my life,” he says. “I just started recording and talking to my relatives.”

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.)

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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 Nathan’s life back to his birth in 1890s Poland. Describing his childhood as hardscrabble is putting it politely. It’s amazing that he was able to escape the area’s 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.”

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 season’s 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.

Nathan’s 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.

In fact, he charged a nickel for nearly 30 years. Finally, his meat supplier forced him to change the price and promised that he would make up any loss in revenue the increase would cause.

So, what would Nathan have thought about the modern-day popularity of the hot dog eating contest? Lloyd was a bit hesitant when I asked him. “Some of the old timers are disgusted by it,” he admitted. While he wasn’t sure if his grandfather would have agreed with them, he “couldn’t deny the advertising impact on the company.” But on the other-hand “he hated waste” and each night he even inspected the garbage to see what people weren’t finishing.

Certainly, the starving Polish boy that Nathan started life as could never have imagined such a contest and, to boot, that it would be named for him.

On July 4th, I will be watching the event with my young son sitting on my lap, and I will, of course, be telling him that we are Nathan’s relatives.