Hot Dog! Fun Facts About Famous Nathan’s of Coney Island

Elisa Lichtenbaum | June 29, 2017
Nathan's in Coney Island

Nathan’s in Coney Island. Credit: Axel Taferner on Flickr

Fourth of July is just around the corner, which means fireworks, cookouts, and Nathan’s Famous annual hot dog eating contest!

Dig into the history behind those iconic hot dogs when Lloyd Handwerker, the grandson of Nathan’s founder Lloyd Handwerker, sits down with THIRTEEN’s MetroFocus to talk about Famous Nathan, his documentary and book about his very famous family business and the American success story it is today. The special segment “The Story Behind Famous Nathan’s Hot Dogs” will air MetroFocus Friday, July 14 at 6 p.m. on THIRTEEN, 5 p.m. on WLIW21, and 5:30 p.m. on NJTV.

Before you tune in (or watch online at metrofocus.org), savor these Nathan’s fun facts guaranteed to make you crave a frank with all the fixins!

Clara Bow

Broadway and Hollywood actress Clara Bow. Credit: Library of Congress

Thanks, Jimmy Durante

When Nathan Handwerker, Polish immigrant and founder of Nathan’s Famous, first opened his hot dog stand in 1916, he charged five cents for his franks. Why? To compete with Feltman’s — his former employer and the reigning hot dog purveyor in the area – who charged 10 cents for his “Coney Island red hots.” The nickel dogs were suggested by Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor, who were singing waiters at Coney Island at the time and couldn’t afford 10-cent dogs on their salaries.

And the Winner Is…

According to Nathan’s legend, their first hot dog eating contest may date back to July 4, 1916, when four immigrants held a hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s Famous stand in Coney Island to settle an argument about who was the most patriotic.

Who’s That Girl?

In Nathan’s early days, a redheaded teenager named Clara Bowtinelli worked as a server there part-time after school. She later gained fame as Clara Bow, the “It Girl” of 1920s silent films. Cary Grant also worked at Nathan’s as a French fry cook before leaving for Hollywood to pursue a film career.

Secret Spices

As this peppy Nathan’s commercial from 1988 illustrates, Nathan’s hot dogs have been palate pleasers since their debut in 1916 due to the “secret spices” that give them their zesty flavor. The secret recipe was developed by his wife, Ida.

Boardwalk Empire

Nathan’s holds one of New York’s oldest beer licenses. In 1933, to celebrate the end of Prohibition, founder Nathan Handwerker served free beer to his customers.
As Handwerker’s grandson Lloyd Handwerker explains in Famous Nathan, “(He) threw something of a party for his customers. He obtained one of the first post-Prohibition permits to sell beer out. He made a deal with Kings Brewery, the major local supplier, just cranking up legal production on Pulaski Street in Brooklyn…took over Anna Singer’s custard stand…and gave out free mugs of beer.”

Famous Fans

Nathan’s franks have been the top dog for legions of famous fans over the years. Legendary gangster and Brooklyn native Al Capone always stopped by Nathan’s when he was in Kings County. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy loved Nathan’s hot dogs and served them at The White House. And in his will, actor Walter Matthau requested that Nathan’s hot dogs be served at his funeral.

Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest countdown clock. Credit: Wikipedia

Pass the Pepto

In 2009, California native Joey Chestnut set the world record for the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest, eating 68 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. That’s approximately 20,400 calories — and 6,000 more calories than the average person eats in a week! In 2016, Chestnut set a new world record, eating 73 ½ hot dogs and buns.

A Taste of Broadway

Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson, and Clyde Alves, the handsome stars of the recent revival of On the Town, added some red-white-and-Broadway to Nathan’s Fourth of July hot dog eating contest festivities in 2014 with a special performance of the musical’s opening number, “New York, New York.” We love those nifty sailor costumes!

What the Fork?!

Remember those tiny wooden forks that helped you dig into Nathan’s delicious French fries for decades? What happened to them? In 1975, the Health Department ordered Nathan’s to stop using them as they may cause splinters. Exit wooden forks, enter red plastic forks.

Welcome to Handwerker Way

In September 2016, the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues in Coney Island were co-named “Nathan and Ida Handwerker Way” in tribute to Nathan’s founders and to commemorate the eatery’s 100th anniversary.