This summer, Nathan's Famous celebrates a centennial milestone, marking 100 years of hot dogs on Coney Island's Surf Avenue. The historic restaurant—which should be a landmark but isn't—officially celebrates this momentous achievement on Memorial Day, when Nathan Handwerker opened his eponymous hot dog stand in 1916. In 2016, they'll be selling hot dogs for 5 cents, the price of a Nathan's dog when they first opened a century back.
Five cents is an important price in Nathan's history, which starts with a young Handwerker working at the original Coney Island hot dog empire Feltman's. Charles Feltman hired young Handwerker at his sprawling Coney Island complex, where he sold a version of what's widely credited as one of the world's first hot dogs for 10 cents. Seeing an opportunity, Handwerker left Feltman's and opened his own hot dog stand down the street, borrowing $300 to do so. There, he sold a hot dog of his wife's creation (the recipe is still a secret) for 5 cents. The shrewd business move was a success, obviously.
The Nathan's Famous counter in its opening year, 1922
The business attracted a lively cast of early regulars, which included singers Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante, actor Cary Grant and even notorious mobster Al Capone. Politicians were also big supporters of Nathan's Famous, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served the hot dogs to the King and Queen of England in 1939 and Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, who said "No man can hope to be elected in his state without being photographed eating a hot dog at Nathan's Famous." A notion that persists to this day.
In the 1940s, Handwerker's son Murray returned from World War II and helped his parents open locations outside of Coney Island. By 1965, Nathan's had expanded its local presence with a branch in Oceanside, NY and a third in Yonkers. At the time, the Nathan's on Coney Island was operating 365-days-per-year, 24-hours a day. It was only when Hurricane Sandy arrived in NYC that the restaurant closed for the first time in its history.
In 1968, Murray Handwerker was named President of Nathan's. Under his guidance, the humble hot dog stand founded by his father went public, resulting in the enormous hot dog empire that is Nathan's today. Nathan Handwerker passed away in 1974, and his son died in 2011.
The Handwerker's family legacy nearly eclipses their Coney Island origins. In the past 100 years, Nathan's has become a household name. Their hot dogs are sold in every state in the USA in addition to 10 international countries, totaling 53,000 retail and foodservice locations, which sold more than 500 million hot dogs in 2015.
Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, 2015
Equally famous as Nathan's itself are the annual Hot Dog Eating Contests, which some say began the year of the restaurant's birth. According to the Nathan's archives, an Irish immigrant named James Mullen challenged two fellow immigrants to compete to eat the most hot dogs, with the winner being crowned the "most American." Mullen won the competition, eating 13 hot dogs and buns to be crowned the first Nathan's champion. Fast forward to 2013, when Joey Chestnut set the current record for 69, the most hot dogs anyone has consumed in 10 minutes during the competition.