History is written by the wieners!
This year marks a century in business for Coney Island’s most celebrated brand — Nathan’s Famous frankfurters. To celebrate the occasion, the grandson of franchise founder Nathan Handwerker has penned a behind-the-counter history of the family business. “Nathan’s Famous: The First 100 Years of America’s Favorite Frankfurter Company,” by William Handwerker is the perfect beach read while in Coney Island.
In his book, Handwerker recalls his first day behind the counter at the Coney Island restaurant in 1967 at the age of 13, when he noticed the ability of his grandfather’s famous franks to attract people from all walks of life and background.
“It was so great see the different kinds of people that came in — they’d be in suits and ties, or shorts, it didn’t matter — everyone enjoyed the experience,” he said. “I came home and distinctly remember saying to myself ‘One day I have to write a book about this.’ ”
The author’s first job was keeping the front counter stacked with cups and ice during the busy summer days on Surf Avenue. But his book stretches back in Poland in the late 19th century, where his grandfather got his first experience in the food business at the age of six, selling knishes door-to-door to feed his poor family.
In 1912, Nathan Handwerker sailed to New York in the bowels of a passenger ship, sleeping with his shoes on to protect the little money he stashed in his socks. Within four years he had joined the restaurant industry, married his wife Ida, and opened his frankfurter stand in Coney Island, selling franks made with her special spice recipe.
The business grew with each successive generation of the Handwerker family, pushed by an obsession with quality. In his book, William recalls how adamant his grandfather was that no employee refer to his frankfurters as lowly “hot dogs” even in his later years.
“Heaven forbid he ever heard anyone call his product a ‘hot dog,’ ” he wrote. “If they did he would quickly remind them: ‘You should never call them hot dogs. Hot dogs are made from inferior meats. Nathan’s frankfurters are made from all beef and a special formula!’ ”
“He definitely thought hot dogs were inferior to frankfurters, but he eventually acquiesced,” he said.
Handwerker left the family business in the 1990s, but still makes time to visit the Nathan’s stand where he started working. Like so many of Nathan’s customers, he makes his way down with family on summer days before a Brooklyn Cyclones game, when the People’s Playground is in full swing.
“We’ll buy a bunch of tickets for family and friends and we all go to Nathan’s,” he said. “It’s just the best, you can’t beat it.”
“Nathan’s Famous: The First 100 Years of America’s Favorite Frankfurter Company” is in bookstores now. $17.95.