14 Hot and Juicy Facts About Nathan's Famous

iStock/FrankvandenBergh
iStock/FrankvandenBergh

Even if you've never been to the sprawling stand on Coney Island, you likely 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.

Image of the original Nathan's Famous location in Coney Island
iStock

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.

Image of a man in a white shirt holding four hot dogs
iStock

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.


iStock

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, and to only step in if things got rowdy.

5. Expansion took 50 years to happen.

Image of a Nathan's Famous food cart on a street in New York City
iStock

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.

Vintage photograph of Al Capone standing next to some other unknown nameless guy in a fedora. Or maybe a bowler hat.
Keystone/Staff, Getty Images

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. Nathan's 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 Nathan's at his funeral.

Image of actor Walter Matthau
Staff, Getty Images

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.

Image of Original Nathan's Famous Frankfurters sign
iStock

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.

Image of the original Nathan's Famous Coney Island location at night
iStock

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 history of the hot dog eating contest is shrouded in mystery—and deception.

Image of competitors at the Nathan's Famous hot dog eating competition in 2017 (I think)
Alex Wroblewski/Stringer, Getty Images

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.

The true story, however, is a little harder to pin down. According to Insider, there's no evidence of a hot dog competition being held before 1972. Mortimer Matz, a public relations professional who worked with Nathan's Famous, told The New York Times in 2010 that the legend was a fabrication intended to improve sales.

"In Coney Island pitchman style, we made it up," Matz told the paper.

13. The current hot god eating champ is a one-man dynasty.

Image of Joey Chestnut standing on a scale and holding the prize-winning mustard yellow bet for winning the hot dog eating competition
Andrew Burton, Getty Images

Since 2007, Joey Chestnut has won the Mustard Yellow Belt, the top prize at Nathan's hot dog eating competition, a whopping 10 times. In 2015, the Californian briefly lost his title to Matt Stonie, who beat him 62 hot dogs to 60. Chestnut 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.

Image of people sitting under umbrellas at the original Nathan's Famous location
iStock

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?

This story originally ran in 2016 and was republished in 2019.

10 Frank Facts About the Wienermobile

Business Wire
Business Wire

This year marks the 83rd anniversary of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, that effortlessly charming, street-legal marketing tool on wheels. The next time you’re in the vicinity of one—a fleet of six makes up to 1400 stops annually—take the time to reflect on the past, present, and future of history’s most famous locomoting hot dog.

1. The Wienermobile started as a kind of land sub. 


Oscar Mayer

In 1936, Carl Mayer, nephew of hot dog scion Oscar Mayer, suggested a marketing idea to his uncle: build a 13-foot-long mobile hot dog and cruise around the Chicago area handing out his “German wieners” to stunned pedestrians. Crafted from a metal chassis, the vehicle was operated by Carl, who could usually be seen with his torso sticking out from the cockpit.

2. The Wienermobile was once driven by "Little Oscar."

Throughout the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, Oscar Mayer enlisted various little people to portray “Little Oscar,” a company mascot sporting a chef’s hat. Little Oscar soon assumed piloting duties for the Wienermobile, waving to crowds and dispensing wiener whistles that kids could use to alert other children to the presence of the car in their neighborhood. Performer George Malchan portrayed the character from 1951 to 1987.

3. The Wienermobile disappeared for decades.

While novelty automobiles were all the rage circa World War II, Oscar Mayer saw interest wane in the 1960s and 1970s, as kitsch gave way to more contemporary advertising campaigns. But when the company put a Wiener back on the road for its 50th anniversary in 1986, they discovered a whole generation of consumers who were nostalgic for the car. The company ordered six new models in 1988.

4. Wienermobile drivers train at Hot Dog High.

Since resurrecting the marketing campaign, Oscar Mayer has trained aspiring Wienermobile drivers at Hot Dog High in Madison, Wisconsin. The company receives 1000 to 1500 applications for the 12 available positions annually, typically from college graduates looking for a road trip experience. Those selected for duty are given 40 hours of instruction and assigned a different region of the country. The company tracks their routes with a GPS.

5. Wienermobile passengers ride "shotbun."

Oscar Mayer Wienermobile
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Wienermobile motorists—a.k.a. Hotdoggers—typically ride in pairs, with the driver keeping an eye on the road and the passenger acknowledging and waving to passersby who want to interact with the vehicle. This is known as riding “shotbun,” and the greetings are mandatory. Some occupants have reported that even after going off-duty, they’ll keep waving to other drivers out of habit.

6. The Wienermobile interior is just as delicious.

Wienermobile fans who are invited to board—and promise to fasten their “meat belts” before rolling—are treated to a rare peek inside the vehicle’s interior. Ketchup- and mustard-colored upholstery surround the six seats, with condiment "stains" dotting the floor; for parades, occupants can wave from the “bunroof.” Two accent hot dogs are parked on the dashboard.

7. The Wienermobile once crashed into a house.

Though it can be challenging to pilot an enormous hot dog, most Wienermobiles log mileage without incident. A rare exception: a 2009 accident near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when a driver attempted to back the vehicle out of a residential driveway, thought she was in reverse, but shot forward and bored into an unoccupied home.

8. Al Unser Jr. drove the Wienermobile for laps at the Indy 500.

While one might expect the Wienermobile to have the handling of a tube-shaped camper, some models were surprisingly nimble. Race car driver Al Unser Jr. took to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1988 and drove it for laps. The dog reached an impressive 110 miles per hour.

9. There's a version of the Wienermobile called a "Wienie-Bago."

Oscar Mayer Wienermobile WIENIE-BAGO
Oscar Mayer

Super Bowl attendees who couldn’t snag a hotel room in San Francisco for the 2016 showdown between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos had a pork-based solution: Oscar Mayer auctioned off two nights in their Wienie-Bago, an RV that sleeps four. Missed it? If you're in Chicago, you can rent a Wienermobile that sleeps two for $136 a night. A bed, outdoor dining area, and a fridge stocked with hot dogs are all included.

10. You can buy a miniature Wienermobile.

For the 2015 gift-giving season, Oscar Mayer issued a limited-edition, remote-controlled version of the Wienermobile. The 22.5-inch-long mini-dog sent collectors scrambling on Cyber Monday, when the company released just 20 for purchase at a time. The Rover is able to hold two hot dogs for transport across picnic tables. You can still find them on eBay.

Autumnal Dessert Spices and Cubed Meat Collide: Pumpkin Spice SPAM Now Exists

David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

Does sipping on a pumpkin spice latte ever make you think: “Man, I wish this were cubed meat”? Soon, it will be. According to NBC News, Hormel will start selling Pumpkin Spice SPAM on September 23.

It all started back in October of 2017, when Hormel announced via its Facebook page that pumpkin spice SPAM was coming—as a joke. The post clearly stated that it wasn’t real, but that didn’t stop scores of people from making comments about how it would probably taste delicious and asking where they could purchase a can.

Now, a Hormel publicist has confirmed to NBC News that the limited-edition, fall-themed flavor will soon be available to order online from Walmart or Spam.com.

"True to the brand’s roots, SPAM Pumpkin Spice combines deliciousness with creativity, allowing the latest variety to be incorporated into a number of dishes, from on-trend brunch recipes to an easy, pick-me-up snack,” Hormel told NBC News.

While Pumpkin Spice SPAM might not yet be accepted into pumpkin spice canon alongside lattes and muffins, it’s far from the strangest product that has been imbued with the mysterious, cinnamon-y spice blend to date; we’ll leave automotive exhaust spray and light bulbs to duke it out for that designation. And the Facebook commenters might have actually been onto something when they dared to suggest that Pumpkin Spice SPAM had palatal potential. After all, ham recipes often include sweet ingredients like maple syrup, brown sugar, and honey. And, according to TIME, the word spam was invented as a portmanteau of spiced ham.

Wondering what other SPAM innovations you might be missing out on? Check out these recipes from around the world.

[h/t NBC News]

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