The rollercoaster history of the wiener in a bun, in new books on the Coney Island institution, Nathan’s Famous
Many think that fast food was invented by Ray Kroc when he opened his first McDonald’s in Des Plaines, Illinois, in 1955. But it is probably Nathan Handwerker who deserves the distinction, argues his grandson Lloyd Handwerker in his new book Famous Nathan (in 2014 Handwerker made a documentary film with the same name). Nathan founded his hot dog stand, Nathan’s Famous, in 1916 at the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues in Coney Island. It was called a “grab joint”—the term “fast food” wouldn’t arrive until the 1950s. “Give ’em and let ’em eat!” Nathan called to his troops as they made “the sweep”: There were no lines at the Nathan’s counter, just a hungry horde served by countermen who served up dogs at the speed of light. By 1916 the hot dog was already a craze in America: Babe Ruth boasted of eating two dozen at a time with a gallon of lemonade.
The inventor of this American gastronomic ritual, Nathan Handwerker, was born in 1892 in Narol, a shtetl in Austro-Hungarian Galicia. The Handwerkers were desperately poor, with 13 children, and Nathan’s father, a shoemaker down on his luck, had to go begging from town to town to make ends meet. At age 11, Nathan got a job in a nearby town at a bakery, where he slept near the oven and had to wake at midnight to prepare the dough.
By 19, Nathan was on a boat headed for America. Six months after his arrival he was working at Max’s Busy Bee, a luncheonette counter in Manhattan. A few months later, Nathan took one of his cousins to a day at the beach. They took the trolley down Ocean Parkway to Coney Island, strolled around the glittering attractions of the world’s most famous amusement park, and bought Cracker Jacks, sometimes called “the first junk food.”
Coney Island stuck in Nathan’s head. He wanted some extra hours on the weekends, when business at Max’s was slow. What better place than Coney Island? He went to Feltman’s restaurant on Surf Avenue, just across from Luna Park, “the Heart of Coney Island,” and got a job as a roll-cutter. Charles Feltman, an immigrant from Germany, was probably the one who, some time in the late 1860s, first served up that brilliant snack: a frankfurter on a warm bun. Feltman’s creation wasn’t called a “hot dog” but a “dachshund sandwich” or a “Coney Island red hot.” Unlike today’s skinless franks, they had sheep’s gut casings tied at both ends like a bratwurst, making a satisfying snap when a hungry customer took the first bite. On a good summer day Feltman’s might serve 40,000 dachshund sandwiches.
Before long, Handwerker had quit his job in the city and opened up his own store in Coney Island. Shrewdly, he lowered the price of his dog to just 5 cents, compared to Feltman’s 10. Most important of all, Nathan ran a grab and go counter, not a sit-down restaurant like Feltman’s. Nathan had intuited the future of American dining: eating on the run, for cheap.
Not long before Nathan’s era Coney Island was an uproarious, criminal place that easily rivaled any old-world den of sin. In its early years, from the 1880s until WWI, Coney was known for gambling, brothels, and all-night bars where many an unwary customer found himself stripped of his cash. “It is blatant, it is cheap, it is the apotheosis of ridiculous, but it is something more,” the author Reginald Wright Kauffman wrote about Coney Island in 1909. That same year 20 million visitors hit Coney, among them Sigmund Freud. Kaufmann compared Coney Island to the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls: an American landmark. Coney Island had Steeplechase Park, Dreamland (which burned down in 1911), and Luna Park. Steeplechase featured the Human Roulette Wheel and the Barrel of Love, where customers as they entered the park were pitched against each other by the barrel’s moving floor. Dreamland had Lilliputia, a tiny town inhabited by 300 midgets, and a circus with 27 lions at the beck and call of Captain Bonavita, who had “soulful eyes and a tremendous handlebar moustache,” according to Oliver Pilat and Jo Ranson’s book Sodom by the Sea: An Affectionate History of Coney Island. Luna Park was an “Electric Eden” with a quarter of a million light bulbs, “a kind of architectural ‘Little Egypt,’ deliciously sensuous,” wrote John Kasson in his book on Coney Island, Amusing the Million. There were wax museums, Ferris wheels, and roller coasters calculated to “make your girl throw her arms around your neck and yell.”
The designers of Coney Island’s amusement parks had the genius idea of making the crowds themselves the spectacle: excited strangers enjoying promiscuous contact, escaping from the workaday world into a carnivalesque realm where most of the fun cost just a nickel or a dime, from skeet shooting and freak shows to Coney’s most popular attraction, Steeplechase’s Insanitarium. Here a clown dressed as a farmer teased the ladies in the crowd with an electric prod that he gingerly applied to their buttocks. Then the shrieking women passed over a blowhole that lifted up their skirts. Some male customers were known to spend hours in the Insanitarium, sending out from time to time for food. On the stage stood a tree with hot dog branches, some of them adorned with ladies’ bloomers.
The one respectable attraction at Coney was the premature baby incubators run by Dr. Martin Couney, who saved thousands of babies with advanced medical techniques in his immaculate “hatchery.” At least one woman returned each week for years to watch the development of the babies. It cost 25 cents to see the incubators, though Dr. Couney eventually had to cut his prices. In 1940 he groused, “Coney Island is so degraded now—even the hot dogs cost only a nickel—that people bargain to see my babies.”
In 1919, Nathan enjoyed an extraordinary stroke of luck: A new El stop, West End Depot, opened at Stillwell and Surf Avenues, a hundred feet from Nathan’s store. After a long train ride almost everyone wanted one of Nathan’s nickel dogs before hitting the beach or the attractions of Steeplechase or Luna Park. On the way back the sunburned visitor would have another hot dog with a pineapple juice or lemonade (also a Nathan’s specialty). As time went on Nathan expanded his operation to include burgers, seafood, knishes, even roast-beef sandwiches. French fries were almost as central to Nathan’s as hot dogs. Fanatical about quality, he made trips to Maine to look for the best potatoes and would buy an entire farm’s crop if he was impressed by it.
Public suspicions about hot dogs were rife even in 1916, when Nathan’s first opened. They stemmed largely from Upton Sinclair’s stomach-churning novel The Jungle of 1906, which detailed the unsanitary practices of slaughterhouses. The hot dog first got its name from a cartoonist named Tad Dorgan, who about the time that Sinclair’s book came out drew a bevy of talking sausages labeled “hot dogs,” playing on the popular rumor that frankfurters were made of canine flesh and other unpalatable substances. Taking the bull by the horns, so to speak, Nathan put up a “No horsemeat!” sign on his store. (This was a possibility: At least one factory in Greenpoint supplied Coney with horseflesh wieners.) There was another innovation: Nathan, whose establishment lacked rabbinic supervision, proclaimed that his all-beef franks were “kosher-style,” an ingenious term calculated to reassure his Jewish clientele.
Nathan cared obsessively about quality of food and service. In the beginning he slept in the store, often on potato sacks, and woke up when a customer rang the bell for service, sometimes at three or four in the morning. Nathan and his wife Ida, who worked alongside him, spent virtually all their waking hours in the store. As time went on, he became a shrewd publicity campaigner: For special celebrations when gave out free hot dogs, Nathan made sure they were larger than usual so that new customers, stunned by the size of their dogs as well as their tastiness, would come back soon.
Nathan paid his employees well, quietly gave out free hot dogs to those who couldn’t pay, and hired and promoted minority workers. But he could be a hard man to like, the reader learns from Handwerker’s book. He was a micromanager suspicious of any employee who had a clean apron—not a hard enough worker, Nathan thought. He obsessively checked the garbage cans for food that shouldn’t have been thrown away. And like all restaurant owners, he watched like a hawk for employee theft. One reason that restaurateurs prefer to hire relatives, Handwerker notes in Famous Nathan, is that they think that blood relations will steal less from them than strangers. Still, Nathan’s grandson Steve remarks that Nathan “didn’t like a lot of people in the family. … He saw them as lazy, as non-industrious, or trying to get away with something.” Nathan’s most prized employees were workhorses like himself who during the summer season toiled seven days a week, 10 hours a day. The work ethic had its tragic side: Sidney Handwerker’s sister Rosie got pregnant at the wrong time, during high season, tried to give herself an abortion, and botched the job. She died at Coney Island Hospital.
During WWII Nathan’s was the one spot of light on Coney Island—literally. The rest was subject to a blackout, since German U Boats prowled the Atlantic coast. But Nathan convinced the government that he could shut down his business in 60 seconds in case of an attack, so he was allowed to stay open 24 hours, with the amusement parks and bars shrouded in darkness.
Probably the most tedious job at Nathan’s was counting coins, not just because they were frequently filthy—coated in sand, suntan oil, and grease—but because in prewar days they had to be counted and rolled by hand into paper tubes to take to the bank. This operation happened at the end of the summer, and Nathan’s sons were the chief workers, hour after hour in the store’s dark, hot back room. Those sons, Murray and Sol, both served in WWII, and after they returned they were the heirs apparent to the Nathan’s empire. Sol was a card-carrying Communist, Murray an ardent Francophile and an enthusiast of French cuisine. Murray oversaw Nathan’s expansion to locations outside Coney Island, while Sol left the company in 1963 to run the Snacktime hot-dog stand in midtown Manhattan. Snacktime, at Eighth Avenue and 34th Street, was replaced by a porn store in the 1970s, but by then it had made Sol a handful of money.
Nathan would hardly recognize today’s Coney Island. Does anyone under 50 even know the names of Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor, Coney’s most famous song and dance duo? (William Handwerker, Lloyd’s cousin, in his rival history of Nathan’s, Nathan’s Famous, claims that Durante and Cantor first suggested to Nathan that he open his own store.) Fred Trump, Donald’s father, demolished Steeplechase in 1966.
Already in Nathan’s day Robert Moses, Coney Island’s biggest nemesis, had taken over large sections of the park area for housing developments surrounded by empty space: Moses wanted pastoral relaxation for the masses, not Coney’s lowbrow amusements. But Moses didn’t triumph completely. Today the raucous spirit of old Coney Island lives on at the tottering Cyclone and at Coney Island USA with its Mermaid Parade and Sideshows by the Seashore freak show. And, not least, at Nathan’s hot-dog eating contest, which this year marks the 100th anniversary of Nathan’s Famous. Check it out on July 4. And grab a hot dog yourself, for old time’s sake.