This is the story of a family business selling frankfurters-in-a-bun at Coney Island, a precinct of Brooklyn famous for its amusement parks.
Even before the tiny store opened in 1916, Coney Island’s illuminations were visible 30 miles out to sea. To inbound immigrants like Nathan Handwerker—a Polish Jew who in 1912 fled poverty, hunger and war—the glow whispered: “This is the land of opportunity.”
Handwerker—who died in 1974—made the most of every opportunity. His business, at its height, sold 75,000 hot dogs in a single weekend.
The business still exists, although it has changed with the times.
Erick Trickey, in his 2016 Smithsonian Magazine article, explores Handwerker and the Coney Island context (including his competitors).
But that’s this book tells the rest of the fascinating story of Nathan’s Famous.
The founder’s grandson Lloyd Handwerker (along with Gil Reavill) have produced a book that is warm but not sentimental. It neatly dismisses “history” that is suspiciously like public relations (carefully examining, for example, whether Nathan’s wife Ida created a “secret” spice formula for the frankfurters).
It also avoids bitterness, the potential for which lies in a family feud involving the author’s father and uncle —that is, Nathan Handwerker’s two sons Sol and Murray.
(Lloyd’s cousin William also wrote a book, Nathan’s Famous, from the insider perspective as a former company Senior Vice president; it was released in 2016, the same year as Lloyd’s version.)
This immigrant story is “a tale of America itself”, but as a non-American food enthusiast, I found the book compelling.
In the best tradition of rags-to-riches, Nathan was one of 13 siblings, born into a family of “Jews without a cent to their name”.
Although he later learned to read a little, he had no schooling and was practically illiterate. At 6, he was apprenticed to his father, an itinerant shoemaker; at 11, he began selling baked goods on the street of a nearby town.
Although he worked outside in bitter weather, slept on the bakery floor and started work in the early morning, there were benefits: “I knew already in the bakery I had a lot to eat”. After two years, he had saved the equivalent of $US2, spending it on meat to take home to his family.
Several significant character traits are teased from this anecdote. His capacity for hard work reappeared later in life, when—having fled Europe for New York—he worked seven days a week, five at the Busy Bee Luncheonette in Manhattan, and two at Feltman’s in Coney Island. No English? No problem. His ability to save money from his paltry wages allowed him to open his tiny Coney Island business in 1916. But there was something else:
Even as a 13-year-old boy, he was aware of the importance of quality. He didn’t go to any butcher; he went to what he knew was the best butcher in town … The boy in the story would grow up to be a man who was fanatical about ensuring the quality of everything he sold.
This attention to quality applied to all elements of his hot-dog business. For many years, the frankfurters—all-beef with a natural casing—were sourced from a Brooklyn company. The beef was lean bull meat including cheeks and brisket trim. Nathan personally checked the quality, biting the ends off a sample sausage and chewing, thereby assessing factors such as “the relative texture of the casing … spice mixture … amount of water … fat-to-lean” proportion.
To control quality in their hamburger patties, the business bought whole hindquarters of beef and ground it themselves. They roasted the top round and sliced it for sandwiches. Nathan bought a farm’s worth of potatoes from Mount Katahdin, Maine, because he believed they were the best potatoes. And the oil in which they were deep-fried was discarded as soon as it was no longer fresh.
Then there’s the counter-intuitive strategy of ordering supplies of slightly larger frankfurts for use on high-volume days, to turn first-timers into repeat customers. It worked!
So successful was Nathan’s Famous that, during World War II, it was exempted from the general blackout. When the rest of Coney Island was dark, Nathan’s continued to glow—to raise morale.
The war finally forced Nathan Handwerker, in 1944, to raise the price of a frankfurter above a nickel; it increased by 2 cents, so was still under a dime. The low price was possible because of the volume of business. Huge crowds, spilling out of Manhattan, alighted from the Coney Island train station, and whichever way they walked, they couldn’t avoid passing Nathan’s—and the smell of frying onion was irresistible.
Nathan was only 5’ 3” tall and had a soft heart, but he applied an “uncompromising management style”. He harangued his staff—who were often family members, including his wife Ida. He checked for unjustified waste (the trash cans had white-painted interiors so he could more easily see their contents). Nathan and Ida sometimes worked 20-hour days; at times, so did the staff.
And yet some workers stayed for decades. Certainly, they received better-than-average wages and annual bonuses, but their volatile boss also generated real loyalty. Those who stayed around became a kind of family.
The narrative is enlivened by quirky details gleaned from staff interviews. A shoe-shine boy once nearly set Nathan on fire by trying to burn the grease from his wing-tips. We learn the complicated system of keeping frankfurters turning on the huge gas-fired grill and the way cooks regulated the heat. We read how long it took to count the money—all those nickels and dimes—and that the sidewalk was scrubbed clean, in contrast to “other thoroughfares of Coney … stained dark with dirt, grease, and the tramp of millions of pairs of human feet”.
The details build a lively portrait of the everyday. These insights, processes and values are often lost to the historical record, yet provide vitality and specificity that bring the story to life in a satisfyingly greasy, grounded way.
The habit of employing family sowed the seeds for feuds, leaving some family members feeling exploited and misled. After decades of phenomenal success—the business growing from tiny “Nathan’s” to the institution “Nathan’s Famous”—there came a time when the business model needed refreshing. Nathan’s two sons had different visions … which would it be?
In the book’s final chapter, author Lloyd Handwerker remembers a 1990s visit to a corporate-run Nathan’s Famous. He notices new electric griddles that can’t respond as quickly as the old gas-fired flames, hampering the ability of the cooks to produce a sausage at the peak of deliciousness. The potato crisps are not fried properly. And the cash register is right up front: “to me … the change symbolized a switch in philosophy. Money first, indicated the new arrangement. Food later.”
The undignified present-day July 4 hot-dog-eating competition run by the company would seem to run counter to Nathan’s obsession with quality. Furthermore, competitive eating seems painfully ironic in light of Nathan Handwerker’s childhood hunger and subsequent hatred of waste.
But the authors avoid the trap of nostalgia. That’s a real achievement in the tricky territory of flavour memories, and a credit to the authors of this well-crafted insight into an era, a business, a food, and a family.
Lloyd Handwerker and Gil Reavill, 2016, Famous Nathan: A Family Saga of Coney Island, the American Dream, and the Search for the Perfect Hot Dog, Flatiron Books/Macmillan: New York.