Secrets of New York

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Nathan's Famous in Coney Island celebrates 100 years

Nathan's Famous in Coney Island celebrates 100 years in 2016. (Credit: Diana Colapietro)

food & drink

Secrets of Nathan's Famous: From famous guests to frog legs

1310 Surf Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11224

Nathan's Famous has been a constant in Coney Island for 100 years. Through each decade -- the boom times and the bust times -- the beachside restaurant has continued to sell hot dogs to tourists and locals alike. And it hasn't only operated along Brooklyn's shoreline.

Nathan's Famous hot dogs today can be found in all 50 states and in 10 countries and at approximately 50,000 restaurants, stands and grocery stores. If you're at a baseball game in NYC and you're eating a hot dog, it's likely a Nathan's Famous: The brand is the official hot dog provider at both Citi Field and Yankee Stadium.

Opened by Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker in 1916, Nathan's Famous' 100 years are rich with history.

Before founding Nathan's Famous in 1916, Nathan Handwerker

Credit: Nathan's Famous

Nathan Handwerker hired actors to help sell his dogs

Before founding Nathan's Famous in 1916, Nathan Handwerker worked at a Coney Island restaurant called Feltman's, which sold hot dogs. Customers loved the encased meats and paid 10 cents each. In an interview at the original Coney Island location of Nathan's, Wayne Norbitz, former president of Nathan's Famous, an employee of 41 years and a current consultant, explained the history of the business over iced teas on a recent spring day.

Handwerker thought to himself, "Why don't I set up my own shop and sell them for 5 cents?" Norbitz said

But then Handwerker wondered: Would people think his dogs were of an inferior quality? Norbitz said that's when the founder got creative.

"He hired actors to wear white coats and stethoscopes around their necks to show they were healthy!" he said.

Nathan's wife Ida (pictured with Nathan in 1966)

Credit: Nathan's Famous

The Nathan’s hot dog recipe came from Ida Handwerker's grandmother

Nathan's wife Ida (pictured with Nathan in 1966) came to Coney Island from Eastern Europe, and in her family they ate a lot of potted meats, Norbitz explained. "That strong garlicky flavor? She gave Nathan the recipe," he said. "In 100 years, the kind of meat we use and that special formula of spices" hasn't changed, he said.

So what's in it? It's a proprietary secret.

Max Rosey, a local kid who worked in

Credit: Diana Colapietro

The famous hot dog eating contest was a publicity stunt (at first)

Max Rosey, a local kid who worked in public relations, told Handwerker he could get a picture of Nathan's in the New York Post if they created some sort of spectacle at Nathan's, Norbitz said. According to legend, they set up a table outside Nathan's, asked a couple of people walking by to participate in a hot dog eating contest, and took the picture. It ran in the Post, and the rest, as they say, is history -- that repeats itself annually on July 4.

In 2015, Nathan's sold approximately 530 million hot

Credit: Diana Colapietro

2015 was Nathan's Famous' best year

In 2015, Nathan's sold approximately 530 million hot dogs worldwide and 750,000 at Coney Island alone, Norbitz said.

The clam bar at the Nathan's original location

Credit: Diana Colapietro

The most popular seafood item is frog's legs

The clam bar at the Nathan's original location in Coney Island was added in 1946, and frog legs have been on the menu since the '60s. They are only available at the Coney location, and, according to Bruce Miller, senior director of company and store operations, they are seeing a renaissance.

All politicians looking to get New York votes

Credit: Nathan's Famous

Nathan's has always attracted celebrities

All politicians looking to get New York votes visit Nathan's for a dog and a photo op (most recently, Bernie Sanders), but that's nothing new for the beachside restaurant. Back in the day, it was entertainers who showed up: Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante (pictured, left, with Handwerker), Jackie Kennedy and others were regulars.

Before she was discovered and became a famous

Credit: Paramount Pictures

Clara Bow worked at Nathan's

Before she was discovered and became a famous silent film star, Clara Bow was a waitress at Nathan's, Norbitz said. She's seen here in the 1927 film "It."

Cary Grant, seen here in

Credit: MGM

Cary Grant used to make French fries at Nathan’s

Cary Grant, seen here in "North By Northwest," used to sleep on sacks of potatoes at Nathan's when he wasn't frying them up for customers, Norbitz said.

Before there was a Nathan's Famous restaurant, there

Credit: Diana Colapietro

Nathan's was a hot dog cart first

Before there was a Nathan's Famous restaurant, there was Handwerker's hot dog cart. Located on the sidewalk where the northwest corner of the restaurant now stands, it was 20 feet across and sold hot dogs and beverages. Today, the menu at Nathan's boasts dozens of items, from hamburgers to chicken tenders to clams on the half shell.

From the beginning, customers were given wooden forks

Credit: Diana Colapietro

The red forks exist for your safety

From the beginning, customers were given wooden forks to eat their fries because Nathan's fries were soft and squishy, without the hard exterior found on other deep-fried potatoes. But in 1975, the Health Department stopped them from using the wooden forks, said Norbitz, who said he thought it was out of fear of splinters. That's when the red forks were introduced.

In the early days, menu items were added

Credit: Nathan's Famous

It's not all hot dogs and fries...

In the early days, menu items were added (and removed) fairly regularly. Handwerker tried different dishes out to see what stuck, Norbitz said. Chow mein on a bun, for example. For Handwerker, it "was a pretty cool idea," Norbitz said.

Lloyd Handwerker's book, "Famous Nathan" (set to be released on June 21, 2016), credits the sandwich to Sinta, Nathan's "legendary longtime head cook" whose parents were Taiwanese immigrants.

"When the innovative concoction was advertised on a placard hanging above the counter, Sinta rebelled," the book states. "He didn't like the grinning, pigtailed 'Chinaman' caricature painted on the sign. Nathan immediately apologized and had the offending placard taken down."

To celebrate the end of Prohibition in 1933,

Credit: Nathan's Famous

Nathan's holds one of New York's oldest beer licenses

To celebrate the end of Prohibition in 1933, Nathan's gave away free beer, Norbitz said. Lloyd Handwerker elaborates in "Famous Nathan": "Nathan 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 ... Nathan took over Anna Singer's custard stand ... and gave out free mugs of beer."

Dating to the 1920s and 1930s, the neon

Credit: Diana Colapietro

The neon signs are original

Dating to the 1920s and 1930s, the neon signs at Nathan's Famous in Coney Island are original. Most still work today.

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