'Famous Nathan': 10 things we learned about NYC's iconic hot dogs
Finally showing his documentary film, "Famous Nathan," at the Tribeca Film Festival was a personal triumph for cinematographer Lloyd Handwerker-- it marked the completion of a project that was basically a lifetime in the making.
After years spent interviewing relatives and friends, Handwerker, the grandson of Nathan Handwerker, the tireless Polish immigrant behind Nathan's Famous hot dogs, churned out a tribute to his family that is, above all else, real.
Handwerker's documentary shows Nathan's victories ("He was a god in Brooklyn," one former employee states), and the sacrifices he made to get there, but he also uncovers a side of his grandfather that he never knew-- a tough-as-nails boss who was both loved and feared by his staff.
Handwerker even digs into his family's deepest-rooted tensions, and uncovers, in part, how the business tore two of Nathan's sons apart.
"Famous Nathan" shows the tremendous highs and lows that came along with founding a New York City institution, and takes the audience along for a whirlwind trip down memory lane. Here are 10 things we learned.
Nathan was born to be famous
Nathan Handwerker knew how to hustle. As an 11-year-old boy in Poland, he went off on his own to live and work in a bakery for two years to make enough money to feed his family. By 19 he had saved enough to start a new life. While his brother spent his money on "gambling and girls," Nathan kept his eye on the prize. "I wanted to go to America," he says in the film. And he did-- landing right in New York City. There he learned English by taking orders at a Manhattan luncheonette and then went on to work at Feltman's, a hot dog spot in Coney Island, before starting his own place in 1916.
Nathan's wife tried to out-sell him
Nathan Handwerker met his future wife, Ida, when she was working at a food stand down the street from Nathan's Famous in Coney Island, according to the film. He made her an offer to come work for him instead, and well, the rest is history.
(Credit: Daniel Farrell)
No one ever got a parking ticket outside Nathan's
In the heyday of Nathan's Famous, double (and even triple) parking was the norm on Surf Avenue, but "no one ever got a ticket," the film reveals. Why? Well, it turns out Nathan had the local policemen on his payroll. Each officer on duty was paid $2 a day, and in return they were happy to step in when the crowds got out of hand-- or to look the other way when parking rules were violated.
(Credit: Mike Zwerling)
The Handwerker family had plenty of drama
Nathan's sons, Sol and Murray, didn't exactly see eye to eye when it came to how to run the family business. In fact, Sol eventually left the business and opened his own hot dog spot, Snacktime, in Midtown Manhattan in 1963. It lasted for 15 years.
Nathan's was a leader in Coney Island integration
When Nathan hired his staff, he was looking for one thing: hard workers. He didn't care about race, even at a time when Coney Island bath houses and other establishments were still segregated, the film reveals. Many African American and hispanic workers were able to find jobs at Nathan's when nowhere else in the area would have them.
(Credit: Mike Zwerling)
The first Nathan's hot dog was 10 cents
Nathan opened his business in 1916 selling hot dogs for 10 cents, but he wasn't turning much of a profit. After slashing the price in half-- to 5 cents a hot dog-- the crowds started pouring in.
(Credit: Getty Images / Andrew Burton)
There was something in the mustard (well, maybe)
Before mustard bottles or packets, Nathan's mustard sat on the counter in big metal bowls, with sticks for applying the perfect schmear. But when LSD use became rampant in New York City, there were rumors that people were putting the drug into the mustard bowls, one former employee says in the film, and they were taken away.
Nathan often went undercover
Nathan's business was his life, and he never tired of working. He would even show up and stand in line in the middle of the night, to listen in and make sure he wasn't hearing any complaints from the customers, who loved to stop in for a bite after a night of dancing.
For many workers, Nathan's wasn't just a job-- it was a career
Working at Nathan's was a wild ride, and many former employees interviewed in the film are happy to talk about it. The demanding pace and unprecedented crowds made for long, non-stop work days (and even fist-fights with rowdy customers), but employees went above and beyond for the job, and Nathan went above and beyond for them, paying them far above minimum wage and even giving some no-interest loans so they could buy houses for their families. Many stuck around for decades.
Nathan didn't want more than one store
As times changed and people were moving away from Brooklyn and out into the suburbs, Murray was adamant that Nathan's needed to expand beyond its Surf Avenue location, but his father didn't find it necessary. He had made a big enough business to keep his family going right on that corner, he said, and that was all they needed. If Nathan had his way, we wouldn't be eating his hot dogs across the nation or at ball parks today.
(Credit: Flickr/Ed Yourdon)