The Origin Story Of Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs

Everyone has their own interpretation of what makes summer, summer. For some, it's a week on the lake, complete with bonfires and waterskiing. For others, it's long days at the beach or community pool, eating popsicles to cool off. And for many, summer is found in spending hours on the patio, enjoying every moment of extended daylight. When it comes to summer food, there are definitely some non-negotiables, like juicy slices of watermelon, corn on the cob drenched in butter, and a grilled hot dog. In the backyard, on the beach, or in the ballpark, the classic American hot dog has been a summertime favorite among kids and adults for decades.

When it comes to buying hot dogs, there is certainly no shortage of brands. Oscar Mayer, Hebrew National, and Ballpark are all popular and easy to find. But it can be argued that the most famous and recognized hot dog in America is quite possibly Nathan's Famous, born on Coney Island, NYC, in 1916, per Mashed. In the last century, Nathan's has gone from a small boardwalk hot dog stand to a supermarket staple to a restaurant chain offering an array of treats to millions of Americans. And it all started with a young Polish immigrant.

How it started

History says that Poland-born Nathan Handwerker spent long days as the bun slicer at Feltman's hot dog stand on Coney Island in the early 20th century. A struggling but hard-working immigrant, Handwerker saved his money by subsisting on hot dogs from work and sleeping on the floor of the establishment for an entire year. According to Nathan's, it was during this time that he met the waitress that would become his future wife, Ida Greenwald. Together, they took the $300 that they had saved and opened up their own hot dog stand in 1916, demolishing the competition by selling dogs at half the price of his rival.

It was Ida's grandmother's spice recipe the couple used in their frankfurters (a recipe that has changed little in the last 100 years), and, while delicious, success didn't happen overnight. According to Mashed, customers weren't sure how they felt about a snack that was literally half the price of the hot dogs they were familiar with. It sounded like, well, a cheap hot dog. In a clever marketing ploy, Handwerker hired men to wear white coats and come to his stand to eat his product. People thought they were doctors, and if doctors were eating them, they had to be okay, right? The gimmick worked, and by the time of the Great Depression, Nathan's was renowned all over the country.

How it's going

In its early days, Nathan's sold its prized hot dogs and fresh-cut crinkle fries to hungry beach-goers, tourists, and locals at their original stand on the Coney Island boardwalk, and it still does. But as time went on and word spread, so did its reputation. According to History, President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor famously served Nathan's hot dogs to England's King George VI and his wife, Elizabeth, when they visited Hyde Park in 1939. Mashed notes that Jimmy Durante, Cary Grant, and Al Capone were some of the company's historical fans. By 1946, Handwerker's son, Murray, began working in the family business. It was Murray who began expanding the company's menu offerings, opened stand-alone Nathan's franchises, and put Nathan's hot dogs in supermarkets from coast to coast. With its iconic mustard-yellow and Kelly-green packaging, the brand is easy to spot in a sea of meats in the deli case. 

Nathan's is the official hot dog of Major League Baseball, furthering its status as America's favorite hot dog. And who can overlook the infamous hot dog eating contest that happens every 4th of July? Hosted at its flagship location, the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest captivates up to a million viewers on ESPN every year. Competitive eaters from across the world show up to try to take the title from champion Joey Chestnut. Nathan's has become a part of classic Americana over the last 100+ years, and let's hope it stays strong for 100 more.