We all know what hot dogs are made of by now. The secret’s out. Whatever you’re take, hot dogs are legendary in America – especially Nathan’s Famous NY dogs. So grab your ketchup and mustard, and stick with us as we count down the Top 10 Untold Truths of Nathan’s Famous!
10. A Family Business
Nathan’s Famous first began as a nickel hot dog stand in Coney Island in 1916. It was started by Nathan Handwerker—who the business is named after—and his wife, Ida. It was Ida’s grandmother who created the secret spice recipe that gives the hot dogs their signature flavor. With a loan of $300, the first Nathan’s Famous was opened at the corner of Surf and Stillwell, where, today, their annual Hot Dog Eating Contest takes place. Apparently, Nathan’s Famous grew its business by undercutting the competition, Feltman’s. Feltman’s sold their hot dogs for ten cents and Nathan’s Famous came in hot (get it?), selling theirs at five cents apiece. The expansion was later overseen by Nathan’s two sons, Murray and Sol. Unfortunately, they didn’t see eye to eye on how to run the business, and Sol left Nathan’s Famous to start his own hot dog shop in 1963. Nathan took the conflict between his sons hard and passed away in 1974, never seeing them reconcile. Murray continued to run affairs at Nathan’s, opening a second branch a couple of years later on Long Beach Road and a third in Yonkers a little after that. Business was thriving and Murray was eventually named president of the company in 1968, the year it went public. All locations were then sold to a group of private investors in 1987 and Nathan’s Famous was franchised. A ton of locations were opened in and around New York City after that and, in the 90s, the company acquired Kenny Rogers Roasters and Miami Subs Grill, both of which were later divested. Better to stick with what you know, anyway.
9. Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contests
In case you didn’t already know, every year on July 4th, Nathan’s hosts an annual hot dog eating contest. Rumor has it that the very first one was held on Independence Day in 1916 when four immigrants decided to settle an argument over who was the most patriotic. The winner scarfed down 13 hot dogs in 12 minutes. There’s a bit of a weird debate about this story because, in 2010, promoter Mortimer Matz admitted to making up the story in the 70s to create publicity for Nathan’s Famous. Nathan’s was quick to shut down this claim, calling Matz a liar and saying that he never even worked for them. Regardless of its origins, today, Joey Chestnut is the reigning champion of Nathan’s Famous annual Hot Dog Eating Contest for his record of 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes. (13 just doesn’t have the same lustre now, does it?) Turns out, Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest is actually pretty famous. Every year, it draws in over a million viewers. Unsurprisingly, watching somebody inhale 75 hot dogs in mere minutes is quite the show. In terms of a live audience, Coney Island draws in about 30,000 to 40,000 people to watch the whole thing go down. Around 1,700 hot dogs are prepared for the contest but that’s nothing compared to the thousands of hot dogs they sell to spectators at the event. Talk about selling like hotcakes—or, rather, selling like hot dogs!
8. Hot Dog Contest Stars
As far as hot dog eating goes, Joey Chestnut is a pretty big deal. Since 2007, he’s won the Mustard Yellow Belt – the highest prize at Nathan’s hot dog eating competition – thirteen times. He holds the most titles and the current record! In 2020, he beat his own record surpassing the 74 hot dogs he downed in 2018. Joey Chestnut is actually ranked the No. 1 competitive eater in the world – and yes, that’s an actual thing. With stats like 13 pounds of deep-fried asparagus, 47 grilled cheese sandwiches, 25 and a half pounds of poutine, and a whole turkey—all in ten minutes, it’s no wonder he’s the champ. He briefly lost his title of hot dog champion to Matt Stonie in 2015, who beat him 62 hot dogs to 60, but quickly regained it the following year, and has been on a winning streak ever since. 2011 marked the first all-women’s contest – aside from a special contest hosted in 1975 on Memorial Day, where a 19-year-old Brooklyn College student, Martha Rosenbloom, won. Sonya Thomas took the win in 2011 with 40 hot dogs. The only woman to have ever won when both genders competed together was Birgit Felden from Germany in 1984. (That competition was actually the first time Birgit tried an American hot dog!) In case you’re wondering how these numbers are even possible, there are actually a few different methods professional eaters use. One is called the “Solomon Method” created by Takeru Kobayashi, which consists of breaking the hot dogs in half, eating both halves at once, and then the bun. Another, more popular one, is the “dunking” method, which sounds like what it is. Contestants dip the buns in water and squeeze them out to help it go down easier. Grossed out yet?
7. Murray Handwerker Played A Big Role
While Nathan’s original stand did phenomenally well on its own, it’s his son Murray who can be credited with the expansion of the brand. Although Murray had pretty much been raised behind the counter of the original store, it wasn’t until after he returned from WWII in 1946 that he really began to get involved. He introduced shrimp and clams to the menu, as well as delicatessen items—despite his father’s reservations. It must have turned out for the better, though, because Murray took over the family business in 1968. During this time, the younger Handwerker helped his father’s business grow outside of Coney Island with several company-owned restaurants, as well as multiple franchises. Under Murray’s leadership, the company published its own cookbook and established a packaged hot dog business, which went on to become a supermarket staple. Today, there are over 300 Nathan’s Famous restaurants and their hot dog line is sold in supermarkets across all 50 states.
6. Celebrity Patrons
Here’s another example of Nathan’s Famous appropriately representing its own name. Over the years, many well-known people have enjoyed Nathan’s hot dogs. The first of them was actually one of the men who convinced Nathan Handwerker to branch out on his own. That was none other than American actor, comedian and singer, Jimmy Durante – and Nathan’s Famous has been popular among entertainers ever since. Cary Grant used to get the hot dogs for lunch when he worked on the Coney Island boardwalk before his rise to fame – presumably for their inexpensive price tag and great taste. Even notorious names like Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel were said to enjoy them. But Nathan’s Famous dogs weren’t only popular with actors and gangsters—even Franklin D. Roosevelt was a fan. He served the hot dogs to Britain’s King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth at an informal picnic in 1939. It was a bold choice but what better way to represent Americas varying tastes than the good old fashioned hot dog. Apparently, King George had never had one before but liked it enough to ask for another. Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin are also mention-worthy fans of Nathan’s Famous hot dogs, as well as the more modern-day star Barbra Streisand, who once had them shipped all the way to London for a dinner party.
5. An Imposter Among Us
Although Nathan’s didn’t invent the hot dog – that credit goes to Handwerker’s former employer, Charles Feltman – they’re still pretty protective over their brand. Considering that Nathan’s has been around for over a century and generates about $360 million annually, you can bet they didn’t come here to play around – at least not with cheaters. In 2018, a former employee, Samir Ibrahim, attempted to steal the brand’s name. He was apparently fired for failure to meet company standards and decided to open up his own Manhattan hot dog cart not 13 blocks away from a real Nathan’s Famous vender. The kicker? It was called “Natten’s Famous Hot Dog”. (Talk about original!) Of course, the real Nathan’s Famous didn’t tolerate this, and soon after, Samir found himself in hot legal water. The lawsuit claimed that “He not only copied the name but the presentation: script lettering, green color, swirl underneath.” Ibrahim was reportedly unbothered by the lawsuit but did remove the lettering. Apparently, it didn’t really make a difference to him or his sales, but it was likely causing him more trouble than anything else. Nathan’s Famous must be avid Among Us players because they’re quick to spot an imposter – especially when the imposter is not very good at hiding it.
4. They Almost Went Belly Up In The ‘80s.
Nathan’s Famous continued on an upward trajectory from when it first opened until the 1970s when the company’s stocks peaked at $41 a share. Unfortunately, the market for hot dogs quickly grew stale and, in 1981, their stock fell to a mere $1. Handwerker stood by his business, selling his tried-and-true hot dogs, and slowly, sales went back up. In 1986, Nathan’s sold its 20 stores and packaged products business to investment firm Equicorp for $19 million dollars. Today, the company’s stock is worth about $57. If you’re feeling like a bit of a history buff and want to travel to the original Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand in Coney Island, there are four subway lines that can take you there. This wasn’t the case when Nathan’s first opened. In case you forgot just how old the restaurant is, Manhattanites had to take a rail car or steamboat to get out to Coney Island if they wanted a hot dog in 1916. Luckily, it wasn’t too long after, in 1920, when the subway system was extended to Coney Island. People were able to get there much faster than before, which meant a lot more NYC business for Nathan’s. The business was really booming at this time, with the stand selling a reported 75,000 hot dogs every weekend to visitors from outside of town.
3. The recipe
There’s nothing worse than a favorite food from your childhood tasting different than how you remember it. If you’ve been a long-time fan of Nathan’s Famous, you’ll know this is absolutely not the case with their hot dogs. When Nathan Handwerker launched his business, it was not only the lower price of his dogs that differentiated his brand from his previous employer’s, Feltman’s, it was also his wife’s grandmother’s secret spice recipe. It has remained relatively constant throughout the years, which means a Nathan’s Famous hot dog today is going to taste just like it did a century ago (you and your grandparents can probably bond over that! Apparently, the flavor is a pretty special formula – and super top secret. These dogs have a bit of a garlicky flavor which makes them relatively distinct from the usual taste of other hot dogs. The only change that has been made to the recipe is that it is now gluten-free, which was miraculously accomplished without altering the original flavor. Although no one knows much about the secret spices used, we do know that it all comes together in the company’s Cincinnati plant. Some at-home recipes call for onion, ketchup, garlic, chili powder, salt, black pepper, cumin, celery salt, and cayenne pepper—but you can decide for yourself how authentic it tastes! If there’s one place to go for real, old fashioned-style hot dogs, it’s Nathan’s Famous!
2. Frogs Legs, Anyone?
Frogs legs at Nathan’s Famous? Yep, you heard that right! Of course, the restaurant specializes in hot dogs, chili dogs, and corn dogs – all the dogs, really – but they’ve also got a few oddities on the Coney Island location’s menu; one of them being frogs legs. Apparently, Nathan’s has been serving them since 1958 and they’ve been popular enough to keep around on the menu ever since. After all, it’s not every day you see frogs legs on a fast-food menu. According to a manager, the business sells around a thousand of them every month. They’re sold in batches of four or six – for $7.99 and $10.99 respectively (they are a delicacy after all!) – and can be enjoyed with tartar sauce and lemon. Apparently, people actually go to Nathan’s Famous specifically seeking out the frogs legs. The general consensus is that they taste like chicken, but some reviews claim they taste more like fish. They are battered and deep-fried and have to be broken apart like a wishbone to eat (you’re welcome for that visual). Once they’re broken apart, though, they do resemble slender drumsticks, so you can pretend you’re eating chicken. If you’ve ever wanted to try amphibian cuisine outside of a fancy restaurant, Nathan’s might just have to be the next stop on your list! And, if frogs legs aren’t your thing; no worries! The chain also serves other water-inhabiting meals such as fish and clams – both of which you can get in a sandwich or as a “fish and chips” meal. There’s also shrimp and chips and a seafood combo.
1. The stuffed whale incident
This unfortunate stunt was pulled in 1954 when Nathan Handwerker was on vacation in Miami and left his son Murray in charge of running the store. During this time, Murray was approached by Leif Saegarrd, a stranger who had somehow acquired an embalmed finback whale. Saegarrd offered the whale to the younger Handwerker to include as an attraction that would hopefully draw customers to his stand. Who knows why Murray thought this was a good idea, but he accepted the offer and, soon, there was a 75 foot-long, 70-ton dead whale next to his hot dog place. Of course, this was bound to draw attention from people – unfortunately, it wasn’t the right kind. People were pretty grossed out by the stuffed whale and an inopportune heatwave caused the whale to rot and stink horribly. Well, people avoided Nathan’s Famous the way you would avoid a 70-ton rotting whale, and the whale had to be disposed of. In Murray’s defense, he was still learning the tricks of the trade… Guess you could say it took guts to do that! (Sorry, too far?) This actually wasn’t the first marketing ploy pulled by the restaurant. When Nathan’s first opened, Handwerker priced his hot dogs lower than other hot dog vendors’, which led people to believe they must be of lower quality – or worse, not up to health codes. In order to combat this perception, Nathan hired men wearing white jackets to eat hot dogs in front of his stand to draw in “higher class” customers. People assumed that if doctors were eating them, then they must be good!