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. Nathan's Famous 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 Handwerker used a recipe from the old country.
To make his hot dogs stand out from the competition, Handwerker 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 Handwerker 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 at Nathan's Famous was rowdy, 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, and to only step in if things got rowdy.
5. The Expansion of Nathan's Famous 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 of Nathan's Famous.
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 Famous used to own Kenny Rogers Roasters.
8. Walter Matthau requested Nathan's Famous 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. Nathan's Famous 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 died. “My father could not handle the conflict between Murray and myself,” Sol tells his son Lloyd in Famous Nathan.
11. Nathan's Famous reopened after Hurricane Sandy in true New York style.
Less than six months after Hurricane Sandy flooded the Coney Island location in 2012, 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.
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 Nathan's Famous hot dog eating champ is a one-man dynasty.
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 once set the world hot-dog eating record by consuming 73.5 Nathan's Famous hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. In 2020, Chestnut broke his own record and scarfed down 75 hot dogs to win that year's competition—beating the second-place winner by a staggering 33 weiners.
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 at Nathan's Famous 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?
A version of this story originally ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2021.