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14 Hot and Juicy Facts About Nathan’s Famous

Even if you’ve never been to the sprawling stand on Coney Island, you still know about Nathan’s Famous hot dogs—whether from the grocery store or the company’s restaurants, or from watching people willingly stuff their faces full of them every year on national television. The company is a bona fide empire these days, but success didn’t come easily. Here are a few facts about the company’s rise from single stand to iconic brand. 

1. IT ALL STARTED WITH FIVE-CENT HOT DOGS.

In 1912, Nathan Handwerker immigrated from Poland to the U.S. and took a job in the kitchen at Feltman’s restaurant on Coney Island. Convinced he could serve up a better hot dog than the ones Feltman’s made, Handwerker took out a $300 loan and set up a stand serving five-cent dogs—half the price of Feltman’s.

2. NATHAN USED A RECIPE FROM THE OLD COUNTRY.

To make his hot dogs stand out from the competition, Nathan seasoned them using a secret blend of spices handed down from his wife Ida’s grandmother. The result: great success. By 1920, when the subway was extended out to Coney Island, Nathan’s Famous was selling 75,000 hot dogs each weekend.

3. NATHAN HAD AN INGENIOUS METHOD FOR PROMOTING FOOD SAFETY.

To convince customers his hot dogs weren’t a health hazard, Handwerker handed out flyers offering free samples to hospital workers, who showed up wearing their protective smocks. Because if doctors are eating there it must be safe, right?

4. PARKING WAS INSANE, BUT NOBODY EVER GOT A TICKET.

When Nathan’s Famous was hopping, cars would often be double- and triple-parked along Surf Avenue. But nobody ever got a ticket because Nathan had local policemen on the dole. According to the documentary Famous Nathan (filmed by Nathan’s grandson, Lloyd), Handwerker paid officers $2 a day to give people a break, but to step in if things got rowdy.

5. EXPANSION TOOK 50 YEARS TO HAPPEN.

Nathan’s original stand grew and grew, until it took up almost the entire block. But it wasn’t until his son, Murray, took over the business in 1968 that Nathan’s Famous began to extend the brand. A shrewd businessman, Murray established a chain of restaurants along with the packaged hot dog business. Today, there are more than 300 Nathan’s Famous restaurants, and the hot dogs appear in supermarkets in all 50 states.

6. CRIMINALS AND CELEBRITIES ALIKE WERE BIG FANS.

Frequent patrons to the Coney Island stand included Al Capone and Cary Grant (presumably not together), and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who managed to serve Nathan's hot dogs to the King and Queen of England in 1939 as well as Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Modern-day stars have continued the love. Barbra Streisand, for one, had them shipped to London for a dinner party.

7. IT USED TO OWN KENNY ROGERS ROASTERS.

Nathan’s Famous bought the chicken joint in 1998 after it went bankrupt (Kenny’s still sad about that). Ten years later, Nathan’s sold it to a Malaysian franchiser, and now the chain is enjoying a profitable second life in Asia.

8. WALTER MATTHAU REQUESTED THEM AT HIS FUNERAL.

Although he died in California, the Grumpy Old Men star stayed loyal to his New York roots, requesting Nathan’s hot dogs by name in his will. There were also fortune cookies, celebrating his Oscar-winning turn in Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie.

9. THE COMPANY ALMOST WENT UNDER IN THE '80S.

After soaring through the '70s, when the company stock hit a high of $41 per share, the market for hot dogs grew stale, and Nathan’s stock dwindled to $1 in 1981. Despite calls to further diversify the menu, Murray Handwerker stuck with the original hot dog, and slowly the company improved. In 1986, it sold its 20 stores and packaged products business to investment firm Equicorp for $19 million. 

10. A FAMILY BUSINESS MEANS THERE'S FAMILY DRAMA.

Nathan’s two sons, Murray and Sol, didn’t see eye to eye on how to run the business. So in 1963, Sol broke away from Nathan’s Famous and started his own hot dog shop, Snacktime, on 34th Street in Manhattan. It closed in 1977—three years after Nathan passed away. "My father could not handle the conflict between Murray and myself," Sol tells his son Lloyd in Famous Nathan.

11. IT REOPENED AFTER HURRICANE SANDY IN TRUE NEW YORK STYLE.

Less than six months after Hurricane Sandy flooded the Coney Island location, Nathan’s Famous was back in business, and better than ever. The multimillion-dollar renovation allowed the company to add some upscale flourishes, including an oyster bar and a selection of beer and wine.

12. THE HOT DOG EATING CONTEST BEGAN AS A TEST OF PATRIOTISM.

According to legend (and the company), the first ever hot dog eating contest took place on July 4, 1916 between four men arguing over who was the most patriotic. They set to scarfing down Nathan’s hot dogs, with the winner, James Mullen, eating 13 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Which, while impressive, is nothing compared to what today’s professional eaters can cram down.

13. THE CURRENT HOT DOG EATING CHAMP IS A ONE-MAN DYNASTY.


Getty Images

Since 2007, Joey Chestnut has won the Mustard Yellow Belt, the top prize at Nathan's hot dog eating competition, a whopping nine times. The Californian holds the world hot-dog eating record—he consumed 73.5 Nathan’s Famous hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. Ranked the No. 1 competitive eater in the world, Chestnut holds a slew of nauseating 10-minute records, including nearly 13 pounds of deep-fried asparagus, 47 grilled cheese sandwiches, 25.5 pounds of poutine, and a whole turkey.

14. BUSINESS IS BOOMING THESE DAYS.

Nathan’s $1-a-share days are well in the past, with sales and revenue up year over year. The company has stayed in the high-margin businesses of franchising and brand licensing, and its iconic hot dogs are sold in restaurants and stadiums around the country. It’s also gone international, with locations in Russia, Mexico and Malaysia. How do you say "pass the mustard" in Malay?

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Big Questions
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Food
The Origins of 5 International Food Staples

Food is more than fuel. Cuisine and culture are so thoroughly intertwined that many people automatically equate tomatoes with Italy and potatoes with Ireland. Yet a thousand years ago those dietary staples were unheard of in Europe. How did they get to be so ubiquitous there—and beyond?

1. TOMATOES

For years, the wonderful fruit that’s now synonymous with Italy was mostly ignored there. Native to South America and likely cultivated in Central America, tomatoes were introduced to Italy by Spanish explorers during the 1500s. Shortly thereafter, widespread misconceptions about the newcomers took root. In part due to their watery complexion, it was inaccurately thought that eating tomatoes could cause severe digestive problems. Before the 18th century, the plants were mainly cultivated for ornamental purposes. Tomato-based sauce recipes wouldn’t start appearing in present-day Italy until 1692 (although even those recipes were more like a salsa or relish than a sauce). Over the next 150 years, tomato products slowly spread throughout the peninsula, thanks in no small part to the agreeable Mediterranean climate. By 1773, some cooks had taken to stuffing tomatoes with rice or veal. In Naples, the fruits were sometimes chopped up and placed onto flatbread—the beginnings of modern pizza. But what turned the humble tomato into a national icon was the canning industry. Within Italy’s borders, this business took off in a big way during the mid-to-late 19th century. Because tomatoes do well stored inside metal containers, canning companies dramatically drove up the demand. The popularity of canned tomatoes was later solidified by immigrants who came to the United States from Italy during the early 20th century: Longing for Mediterranean ingredients, transplanted families created a huge market for Italian-grown tomatoes in the US.

2. CURRY

Bowl of chicken curry with a spoon in it

An international favorite, curry is beloved in both India and the British Isles, not to mention the United States. And it turns out humans may have been enjoying the stuff for a very, very long time. The word “curry” was coined by European colonists and is something of an umbrella term. In Tamil, a language primarily found in India and Sri Lanka, “kari” means “sauce.” When Europeans started traveling to India, the term was eventually modified into “curry,” which came to designate any number of spicy foods with South or Southeast Asian origins. Nonetheless, a great number of curry dishes share two popular components: turmeric and ginger. In 2012, traces of both were discovered inside residue caked onto pots and human teeth at a 4500-year-old archaeological site in northern India. And where there’s curry, there’s usually garlic: A carbonized clove of this plant was also spotted nearby. “We don’t know they were putting all of them together in a dish, but we know that they were eating them at least individually,” Steve Weber, one of the archaeologists who helped make this astonishing find, told The Columbian. He and his colleagues have tentatively described their discovery as "proto-curry."

3. THE BAGUETTE

Several baguettes

A quintessential Gallic food, baguettes are adored throughout France, where residents gobble up an estimated 10 billion every year. The name of the iconic bread ultimately comes from the Latin word for stick, baculum, and references its long, slender form. How the baguette got that signature shape is a mystery. One popular yarn credits Napoleon Bonaparte: Supposedly, the military leader asked French bakers to devise a new type of skinny bread loaf that could be comfortably tucked into his soldiers’ pockets. Another origin story involves the Paris metro, built in the 19th century by a team of around 3500 workers who were apparently sometimes prone to violence during meal times. It’s been theorized that the metro foremen tried to de-escalate the situation by introducing bread that could be broken into pieces by hand—thereby eliminating the need for laborers to carry knives. Alas, neither story is supported by much in the way of historical evidence. Still, it’s clear that lengthy bread is nothing new in France: Six-foot loaves were a common sight in the mid-1800s. The baguette as we know it today, however, didn’t spring into existence until the early 20th century. The modern loaf is noted for its crispy golden crust and white, puffy center—both traits made possible by the advent of steam-based ovens, which first arrived on France’s culinary scene in the 1920s.

4. POTATOES

Bowl of red, white, and black potatoes on wooden table

Historical records show that potatoes reached Ireland by the year 1600. Nobody knows who first introduced them; the list of potential candidates includes everyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to the Spanish Armada. Regardless, Ireland turned out to be a perfect habitat for the tubers, which hail from the misty slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. Half a world away, Ireland’s rich soils and rainy climate provided similar conditions—and potatoes thrived there. They also became indispensable. For millennia, the Irish diet had mainly consisted of dairy products, pig meats, and grains, none of which were easy for poor farmers to raise. Potatoes, on the other hand, were inexpensive, easy to grow, required fairly little space, and yielded an abundance of filling carbs. Soon enough, the average Irish peasant was subsisting almost entirely on potatoes, and the magical plant is credited with almost single-handedly triggering an Irish population boom. In 1590, only around 1 million people lived on the island; by 1840, that number had skyrocketed to 8.2 million. Unfortunately, this near-total reliance on potatoes would have dire consequences for the Irish people. In 1845, a disease caused by fungus-like organisms killed off somewhere between one-third and one-half of the country’s potatoes. Roughly a million people died as a result, and almost twice as many left Ireland in a desperate mass exodus. Yet potatoes remained a cornerstone of the Irish diet after the famine ended; in 1899, one magazine reported that citizens were eating an average of four pounds’ worth of them every day. Expatriates also brought their love of potatoes with them to other countries, including the U.S. But by then, the Yanks had already developed a taste for the crop: The oldest record of a permanent potato patch on American soil dates back to 1719. That year, a group of farmers—most likely Scots-Irish immigrants—planted one in the vicinity of modern-day Derry, New Hampshire. From these humble origins, the potato steadily rose in popularity, and by 1796, American cookbooks were praising its “universal use, profit, and easy acquirement.”

5. CORN

Corn growing in a field

In the 1930s, geneticist George W. Beadle exposed a vital clue about how corn—also known as maize—came into existence. A future Nobel Prize winner, Beadle demonstrated that the chromosomes found in everyday corn bear a striking resemblance to those of a Mexican grass called teosinte. At first glance, teosinte may not look very corn-like. Although it does have kernels, these are few in number and encased in tough shells that can easily chip a human tooth. Nonetheless, years of work allowed Beadle to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that corn was descended from teosinte. Today, genetic and archaeological data suggests that humans began the slow process of converting this grass into corn around 8700 years ago in southwestern Mexico. If you're wondering why early farmers showed any interest in cultivating teosinte to begin with, while the plant is fairly unappetizing in its natural state, it does have a few key attributes. One of these is the ability to produce popcorn: If held over an open fire, the kernels will “pop” just as our favorite movie theater treat does today. It might have been this very quality that inspired ancient horticulturalists to tinker around with teosinte—and eventually turn it into corn

BONUS: TEA

Person sitting cross-legged holding a cup of green tea

The United Kingdom’s ongoing love affair with this hot drink began somewhat recently. Tea—which is probably of Chinese origin—didn’t appear in Britain until the 1600s. Initially, the beverage was seen as an exotic curiosity with possible health benefits. Shipping costs and tariffs put a hefty price tag on tea, rendering it quite inaccessible to the lower classes. Even within England’s most affluent circles, tea didn’t really catch on until King Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza. By the time they tied the knot in 1662, tea-drinking was an established pastime among the elite in her native Portugal. Once Catherine was crowned Queen, tea became all the rage in her husband’s royal court. From there, its popularity slowly grew over several centuries and eventually transcended socioeconomic class. At present, the average Brit drinks an estimated three and a half cups of tea every day.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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