The untold truth of Nathan's Famous hot dogs

There are a lot of famous fast food burgers out there, but when it comes to hot dogs, it's a much smaller club. Popular fast food restaurants like Sonic and Five Guys may offer hot dogs, but there's really only one national fast food joint that specializes in them — Nathan's Famous. Perhaps only Oscar Mayer and Ball Park are as well-known for their wieners, but they don't have stand-alone restaurants. 

Since it first sprang up on Coney Island in 1916, Nathan's Famous has built a reputation on its all-beef franks and their signature spices and crunch. Their hot dogs can be found in supermarkets and stores around the globe, and they've made household names of competitive eaters like Joey Chestnut with their annual Fourth of July hot dog eating contest. 

The story of Nathan's Famous is one of American entrepreneurial spirit — with some pretty weird marketing gimmicks thrown in for good measure. From hot dog-loving gangsters to dead whales and secret recipes, here's everything you didn't know about these famous franks.

Customers were initially suspicious of the low prices of Nathan's Famous hot dogs

Hot dogs might not exactly be expensive food, but when they're being sold for next to nothing, people tend to raise an eyebrow. At least that was the case when Nathan Handwerker launched his hot dog business way back in 1916. 

Handwerker was working in Coney Island at the upscale eatery Feltman's, and they sold their hot dogs for 10 cents. After being persuaded to strike out on his own and sell a cheaper frank, Handwerker launched his hot dog stand with the weiners being sold for 10 cents as well, though they were quickly slashed to just five cents. According to Smithsonian Magazine, crowds were suspicious as to why these hot dogs were so much cheaper than Feltman's. 

In order to get people on board with the five-cent franks, Handwerker hired men in white jackets to hang around his stand and eat hot dogs. People believed the men were doctors from the nearby Coney Island Hospital, and soon began buying the nickel franks (via New York Daily News). The gimmick made people think that if these cheap hot dogs were good enough for doctors, than they must be alright to eat. 

When Nathan's celebrated its 100th anniversary, they had five-cent hot dogs once again — though no fake doctors were needed to sell them this time. 

The recipe for Nathan's Famous hot dogs has been the same for a long time

Nostalgia can be a powerful thing, and it's always a little disappointing when you go searching for it and find that special something isn't quite what you remember. That's not going to be the case when it comes to a Nathan's Famous hot dog. The hot dogs today are going to taste the same as when your great-grandfather might have had one a century ago. 

When Nathan Handwerker launched his hot dog business he did so with his wife's grandmother's recipe. The recipe was different than competitor Feltman's red hot dogs, and it's stayed relatively unchanged since 1916. 

"It's a special formula that we use," longtime Nathan's employee Bruce Miller told Daily News. "It's very important to the flavor. It has a bit of a garlic undertone — a very different flavor from other hot dogs." 

The only change is that the hot dogs are now gluten-free, and this was accomplished without altering the frank's flavor. As for the spices in the recipe, obviously, it's a closely guarded secret, but it all comes together when blended with beef and water at a high speed in the company's Cincinnati plant.

The Nathan's Famous hot dog contest started as a patriotic contest

When it comes to iconic American foods, the hot dog is certainly one of the standouts and the annual Nathan's Famous hot dog eating contest is an Independence Day tradition. Joey Chestnut may be the superstar of the contest in the modern era, but it actually launched way back in 1916 as a stunt to drum up publicity and patriotism. 

It's believed that the very first Nathan's Famous hot dog eating competition took place July 4, 1916 when four immigrants got into a debate over who was more patriotic. Being that Handwerker was a Polish immigrant himself, a hot dog eating contest was the perfect gimmick to create some business buzz. 

The four immigrants set out to prove who loved their new country more and in the end, Irish immigrant James Mullen emerged victorious after consuming 13 hot dogs in 12 minutes. 

Mullen's 12 dogs may be nothing compared to Chestnut's record 74 hot dogs, but hey, every patriotic food eating contest has to start somewhere.

The Nathan's Famous hot dog eating contest draws over a million viewers

It might seem surprising that a hot dog eating contest can draw as many viewers as a popular TV show, but then again, watching somebody eat 60+ hot dogs in a matter of minutes is quite the spectacle.

Who knows how many folks gathered around to watch the first Nathan's Famous hot dog eating contest, but the modern version seems to be growing every year. Around 1,700 hot dogs are prepared for the contest, and between 30,000 and 40,000 people show up to Coney Island to get a firsthand account of the event (via Fox News). 

Those numbers are small potatoes compared to the TV ratings it brings in. For the last 16 years, the contest has been broadcast on ESPN, and pulls in between one and one and a half million viewers (via Time). 

"We watch it every year on ESPN," fan Brendan Schaaf, told Time. "It embodies America — freedom, hot dogs, sunshine, barbecue. It's all the best things."

Of course, the event also means big business for the original hot dog stand, and over the Fourth of July weekend, it's not unusual for them to sell 18,000 hot dogs to hungry visitors. 

Nathan's Famous hot dogs have branched outside of hot dogs into... frog legs

Obviously, hot dogs are the name of the game at Nathan's Famous. After all, they've perfected the wieners for over 100 years. That's not all that Nathan's offers, however. And no, we're not simply talking about their chili dogs or corn dogs. For the truly adventurous fried food eater, Nathan's Famous also offers frog legs. 

This Coney Island culinary oddity is by no means a new thing on the Nathan's Famous menu either, and the original location has been serving them up to curious New Yorkers since 1958 (via Grub Street).

Customers can order four of the battered and deep-fried frog legs for $7.99 or six for $10.99. While they may not be anywhere near as popular as the hot dogs, Nathan's does sell around 1,000 of them a month and people seem to enjoy them with a little tartar sauce and lemon.

Nathan's shift manager Paul Harris, as well as numerous customers on Yelp, seem to agree that they taste like chicken. If you're looking for an alternative to another hot dog, this amphibian delicacy might be it.

Nathan's Famous hot dogs influenced the Coney Island hot dog, but didn't invent it

Nathan Handwerker never claimed to be the inventor of the hot dog. That uniquely American food is generally attributed to Handwerker's former employer Charles Feltman.  Nathan Handwerker's hot dog stand may be what New Yorker's instantly think of when somebody mentions a Coney dog, but it's something entirely different to people in Michigan, or the rest of the Midwest (via Smithsonian Magazine).

In Michigan "Coney Island" has little to do with New York, but instead is a reference to some 500 diners in the state that serve Greek food and hot dogs smothered with chili, onions, and mustard... the Coney Island dog or Coney dog. 

So how did the name "Coney Island hot dog" come to prominence in Michigan of all places? Well, at the turn of the 19th-century when Greek immigrants came to the United States, many of them passed through New York and visited Coney Island before moving westward. 

These immigrants took the hot dog, added chili and dubbed it the "Coney Island dog."It wasn't long before diners popped up in Detroit with names like the iconic Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island grills.

Nathan's Famous does carry a chili dog on their menu, but as for the name "Coney Island hot dog," that's one title Handwerker missed out on.

Nathan's Famous hot dogs have sued copycat vendors

Any brand that's been around for a century is going to take its product and image pretty seriously, and Nathan's Famous is no different. Any hot dot entrepreneurs who are thinking about riding Nathan's coattails to success would be wise to think otherwise. 

In 2018, a Manhattan hot dog vendor and former Nathan's Famous employee found himself in hot legal water when he attempted to rip off the brand's name. Samir Ibrahim had worked at Nathan's, but was fired for failure to meet company standards, and soon opened up a hot dog cart with the not particularly original name... "Natten's Famous Hot Dog."

While Ibrahim was busy serving up hot dogs just 13 blocks away from a legitimate Nathan's Famous vendor, he soon found himself being served with a lawsuit. "He not only copied the name but the presentation: script lettering, green color, swirl underneath," the suit alleged. 

Ibrahim told reporters that he "didn't care" about the lawsuit, but had decided to remove the lettering because it "didn't make a difference" in his sales and was presumably causing more trouble than the hot dog vendor wanted to deal with. 

With an annual revenue of $360 million, you can bet that Nathan's isn't about to tolerate any Natten's, Neethen's, or other impostors who want to capitalize on their wieners.

Gangsters and presidents have been fans of Nathan's Famous hot dogs

Nathan's Famous claims to have sold over 500 million hot dogs since its inception, and while those numbers might not be quite as high as the McDonald's hamburger count, some pretty famous folks have enjoyed a Nathan's hot dog. 

Comedian Jimmy Durante was one of the men who suggested that Nathan Handwerker strike out on his own and the hot dogs have remained popular with entertainers in the years since. Actor Cary Grant used to buy the cheap hot dogs for lunch when he worked on the Coney Island boardwalk as a then-unknown Archibald Leach. And singer and actress Barbara Streisand is also a fan of the iconic hot dogs. 

The flavor of Nathan's famous also seems to know no social bounds and has been popular with both notorious gangsters and American politicians. Gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone were both reported to be fans of the hot dogs, and Franklin D. Roosevelt chose to serve Nathan's hot dogs to Britain's George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth at a 1936 lawn party. 

In more recent times, Bernie Sanders and R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe shared a Nathan's hot dog together during Sanders' 2016 presidential run. 

The founder's son took Nathan's Famous hot dogs outside of Coney Island

While Nathan Handwerker may have made a name for Nathan's Famous in New York, it was the younger Handwerker, his son Murray, who made Nathan's famous outside of the city. 

Murray Handwerker grew up in the business and expanded upon what his father had built (via The New York Times). "I was raised behind the counter of the Coney store," he said in 1986. "My playpen was a 3-by-3 crate the hot dog rolls used to come in."

After returning from World War II in 1946, Handwerker began working in his father's business and implementing ideas to broaden the business' food offerings. Shrimp and clams were soon on the menu, as well as delicatessen items — despite his father's doubts about the appeal of the new foods. 

During the 1960s, the younger Handwerker saw the expansion of his father's hot dog stand outside of Coney Island, with both company-owned restaurants as well as multiple franchise locations. ”Now we've got 14 company-owned stores, 4 franchises and 4 satellites," Handwerker told The New York Times. "We're in Pennsylvania, Jersey and upstate New York — all over."

The company eventually published its own hot dog cookbook under Murrany Handwerker's leadership, and Nathans Famous became a supermarket staple (via NBC). 

The New York City subway was instrumental in Nathan's Famous hot dog's success

These days, hungry New Yorkers can get to the original Nathan's Famous hot dog stand in Coney Island relatively easily and have four subway lines that will take them there. When Nathan Handwerker started his modest hot dog business, though, that wasn't the case, and Coney Island was much more of a trek for New Yorkers. 

Prior to the extension of the NYC subway to Coney Island, Manhattanites would take a rail car or steamboat to make the long trip out to Coney Island (via City Lab). This all changed though when the subway extended down to Coney Island in 1920 and brought mass transit to the popular tourist destination. People were able to get to the area much faster than before, and Nathan's Famous was ready and waiting for them when the arrived with hot franks on the grill. 

According to National Geographic, when the subway came to Coney Island, Handwerker's business boomed and Nathan's Famous was selling around 75,000 hot dogs to visitors every weekend.

Nathan's Famous hot dogs once used a rotting whale as a promotional gimmick

Nathan's Famous has certainly built a reputation throughout its history for applying clever marketing gimmicks. As successful as the phony doctors and hot dog eating contests were in getting customers in the door, they don't even compare to the weirdness that was Nathan's 1954 dead whale stunt

The gross spectacle all went down while Nathan Handwerker was away on vacation in Miami and left his son Murray in charge of running the Coney Island business. Murray Handwerker was approached by a man named Leif Saegarrd who claimed that he was in possession of a dead whale and thought it would be a good marketing tactic for the hot dog vendor. 

Obviously, a 75 foot-long dead finback whale that weighs 70 tons has a way of grabbing people's attention, and the idea was that people would come to look at the dead whale and then buy a hot dog to eat — assuming they didn't lose their appetite first. 

An agreement was struck up, and Saegaard brought the embalmed remains of the giant sea mammal to Nathan's Famous hot dog stand on a flatbed truck for all of Coney Island to gawk and stare at. 

However embalmed the whale's carcass may have been, it wasn't enough to mask the smell of 70 tons of rotting whale, and it had the opposite effect Handwerker had hoped for. People didn't rush to Nathan's to buy hot dogs, and instead filed complaints with the health department. Whoops. 

Nathan's Famous hot dogs once gave away 80,000 glasses of free beer

There ain't no party like a Nathan's Famous party and the hot dog vendor celebrated the end of prohibition in a seriously big way. The restaurant owns one of New York City's oldest beer licenses, and when prohibition came to an end in 1933, Nathan Handwerker decided to mark the occasion by offering up as much free beer as people could drink. 

"He obtained one of the first post-Prohibition permits to sell beer out," Nathan Handwerker's grandson Lloyd Handwerker told Thirteen. "He made a deal with Kings Brewery, the major local supplier, just cranking up legal production on Pulaski Street in Brooklyn... took over Anna Singer's custard stand... and gave out free mugs of beer."

According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, it was quite the celebration too, and Nathan's Famous served up some 80,000 glasses of free beer to its customers, who presumably bought quite a few hot dogs in the process. 

You can still get a beer at Nathan's to help wash down your hot dog or frog legs, just don't expect it to be free.