Why Century-Old Nathan’s Is Still America’s Most Famous Frank

Plus, the skinny on that hot dog eating contest

On July 4, thousands of people will gather on the steamy streets of Coney Island in Brooklyn to witness a spectacle that only a city like New York can serve up. Seated onstage at a long table, some 20 iron-stomached contestants will dunk hot dogs into cups of water and then, in a 10-minute window, cram as many of them as possible into their faces. The spectacle is thrilling, it is nauseating, and it is famous. 

Photo: Nick Ferrari; Food Styling: Lynne Chan

Make that Nathan's Famous. Because, while the winner of Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest invariably makes the national news, this seaside scarf-down is really just a marketing manifestation of the brand that gives it its name. Nathan's Famous turns 100 this year, and the Nathan's people will tell you that the eating contest is that old, too—never mind that there's little evidence the event was held prior to 1972. And who cares about that little discrepancy? Well, nobody, really, because Nathan's has always been more than just a frankfurter. The dogs might be 100 percent Angus beef, but the secret ingredients are beach, boardwalk and beer. In other words, when you think of Nathan's, you think of Coney Island.

"The Nathan's name is evocative when it comes to hot dogs," said Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project. "It conjures up hot days at the beach, crowds and family memories at the only grab joint that has survived a tumultuous century of change and loss at Coney Island. It has more to do with survival and nostalgia than anything else."

"It is nostalgia—the company has been making itself synonymous with Coney Island from the very start," agreed Bruce Kraig, author of the books Hot Dog: A Global History and Man Bites Dog: Hot Dog Culture in America. "But you can market the hell out of anything," he added. "We should never forget that they have very good hot dogs."

Indeed so. Nathan's story proves that it's not necessarily the inventor of a product who prospers, but he who perfects it. While Brooklyn restaurateur Charles Feltman didn't invent the hot dog, legend credits him with tucking his pork frankfurters inside buns. One of Feltman's employees was Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker, who took off on his own in 1916 to open up a hot dog counter. Handwerker not only used his wife's grandmother's frankfurter recipe, but he also charged 5 cents for his dogs—half of Feltman's price.

Today, 100 years later, Nathan's operates 45,000 restaurants and retails its dogs in grocery stores in all 50 states. And while the 425 million franks Nathan's sells annually are actually just a small portion of the estimated 9 billion that Americans eat, the brand has a mystique that competitors like Oscar Mayer or Sabrett can't match. And, of course, it has that contest coming up. Want to compete? You'll have to beat Matt Stonie's 2015 record: 62 dogs (and buns) scarfed down in under 10 minutes.

Nathan Handwerker (1, with wife Ida) used the family's secret spice recipe for the dogs he began selling in 1916 at his stand on Coney Island's Surf Avenue (2). Between 1930 and 1950, the restaurant (3) served as many as 50,000 hot dogs every single day.

This story first appeared in the June 27, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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