This year an American institution turns 100. Hot dogs are the quintessential American food, and Nathan’s Famous has come to symbolize hot dogs. Currently, according to “Newsday” the Jericho, NY-based company has some 260 franchised locations in 23 states and nine foreign countries, but it all began with one tiny hot dog stand, an idea, and a special family recipe. The rags to riches story of Nathan’s Famous is a microcosm of the story of America – a poor, first-generation immigrant (Nathan Handwerker) has an idea, and through hard work, foresight and, yes, some good luck, creates a business so successful, it becomes an institution. Although there have been several examples of this throughout American history not many of them have been the equal of Nathan and Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs.
Nathan Handwerker was born in Galicia on June 14, 1892. Galicia is located in present-day Poland near its border with Ukraine. Nathan was one of 13 children of a Jewish shoemaker. It’s fair to say that the family was destitute. In 1912 Nathan emigrated to the US and settled in Brooklyn. At first, he worked at various odd jobs, whatever he could find to provide for himself, but, eventually, he landed a job slicing bread at Feltman’s German Gardens, a restaurant in Coney Island. One of Feltman’s products was hot dogs, which it sold for 10 cents each.
At some point Nathan decided to go into business for himself, so he and his wife invested their entire life savings, $300, and opened a small hot dog stand. How small was it? Well, the grill was only two feet long, and there was no seating area. It didn’t even have a real name. It was located on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues, where it still is today.
There are many stories as to how the business began – some accurate, some not. For example, according to UPI two singing waiters you may have heard of named Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor, encouraged him. They may have had some role, but how much is anybody’s guess. The company’s own official history omits that particular story, but it sounds good. Another story, which might be folklore, is that he named his stand “Nathan’s Hot Dogs” in 1921 after a Sophie Tucker hit song: “Nathan, Nathan, Why You Waitin.” Not sure about that one either.
Nathan was superb at marketing his product. First of all, he undercut Feltman’s by selling his hot dogs for 5 cents each. Secondly, he let it be known that his hot dogs included a secret ingredient from his wife’s family’s recipe. Thirdly, he never skimped on quality and made sure his customers knew it. In those days of looser laws regarding food and drugs, much of the public was suspicious of what ingredients might be in hot dogs (and often with good reason). Nathan feared that his low price might make some customers wary of the quality. In order to allay these concerns, supposedly, he arranged for some customers to be seen eating his hot dogs while wearing doctors’ smocks, to provide a silent endorsement of the high quality of the product.
Perhaps, the best marketing strategy, however, is the annual hot dog eating contest. This has been held at the original location every year since the 1970s. After a modest beginning, it is now televised by ESPN. Contestants consume as many hot dogs as they can in ten minutes. Invariably, the winner is not huge, but a person of average size, proving once again that technique is everything. The current champion is Matt “Megatoad” Stonie.
The business was a rousing success. A second location was established in Oceanside, LI in 1959, and a third in Yonkers, NY in 1968. Additional expansion followed under the direction of Nathan’s son, Murray. In 2015, total revenue was nearly $100 million, which was four times that of a decade ago. Meanwhile, the original location is still going strong, although it is considerably larger. It is open every day, only closing once, for one day in the aftermath of “Super Storm Sandy.”
Nathan’s does not rely solely on its standalone stores. It has many outlets in cinemas, college campuses, retail stores, ballparks, and convenience stores. In fact, approximately one-half of Nathan’s profits are now derived from retail outlets. Former company president, Wayne Norbitz, opines that this diversity has been a key element in the Company’s substantial growth. According to Norbitz “you don’t have to build a building to sell a hot dog.” Makes sense to me. Less fixed costs, among other things.
Brand awareness is another crucial element in the company’s astounding success. Says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for market researcher NPD Group: “Everybody knows Nathan’s Famous, whether they live on the East Coast or not. They’ve done a good job of building awareness and customer loyalty.”
Nathan died on March 24, 1974 of a heart attack at the age of 81. As an illustration of his considerable contribution to Americana and, more specifically, New York City, he was named to NYC’s “top 100,” placing him in the rarified company of luminaries such as Joe Namath, Irving Berlin, Andrew Carnegie and Joe DiMaggio. He may be gone, but the company he created lives on, bigger and better than ever.
Some Nathan’s fun facts:
- Some early customers were Eddie Cantor, Al Capone, Jimmy Durante, and an aspiring actor named Archibald Leach.
- FDR, a big fan, once served Nathan’s Famous to the King and Queen of England. Also, he had some sent to him at Yalta in 1945 when he was at his famous meeting with Churchill and Stalin.
- NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller was quoted as saying “No man can hope to be elected in his state without being photographed eating a hot dog at Nathan’s Famous.”
- Barbra Streisand once had some Nathan’s Famous delivered to her in London for a private party.
- One “Seinfeld” episode centered around a tip to Nathan’s.
- Ex-NYC mayor, Rudy Giuliani is also a big fan. He has called Nathan’s the “World’s best hot dog.”
- Jackie Kennedy served them at the White House.
- In accordance with his instructions Nathan’s Famous hot dogs were served at Walter Mathau’s funeral.