The Sneaky Way Nathan's Famous Got People To Eat More Hot Dogs

Nobody's going to reasonably claim that hot dogs are good for you. In fact, the American Cancer Society will tell you they cause cancer. But a young immigrant entrepreneur in 1916 needed to win over skeptical customers if he was going to have success with his new Coney Island hot dog stand. So he got some doctors to vouch for his product. Sort of. Well, not really.

The men in white coats enjoying their frankfurters might not have been physicians from Coney Island Hospital after all. Perhaps they were college students, as The New York Times remembered it. Or maybe Nathan Handwerker, founder of Nathan's Famous, gave local residents white lab coats and announced to the passing crowd that they were doctors who showed up to give his hot dogs their official approval, as the New York Daily News told it. However the story is told, it shows that Handwerker fit right in with all the other Coney Island pitchmen of his time. He and his sons after him would go on to tell quite a few tales to convince people to buy his hot dogs. Almost a century after those "doctors" vouched for Nathan's, the business was selling almost 500 million dogs a year (via CNBC).

Nathan's Famous hosts campaigning politicians and an eating contest

Just as U.S. presidential candidates sample the corn dogs and deep-fried Oreos at the Iowa State Fair, politicians running for office in New York considered Nathan's Famous a not-to-be-missed campaign stop (via Eater). Two Nathan's publicity agents made sure of it. According to The New York Times, thanks to them, an oft-repeated political saying became, "No one can hope to be elected in this state without being photographed eating a hot dog at Nathan's Famous."

Perhaps nothing has driven sales of Nathan's Famous hot dogs more than the hot dog eating contest, which began in 1972. The event attracts the world's best competitive eaters and is televised to an audience of millions, according to the Nathan's Famous website. Live coverage of the contest amounts to a lot of free advertising for Nathan's Famous. In fact, ESPN pays for the right to broadcast the event (via CNBC). Even this marketing coup came with some creative embellishment. Nathan's history webpage says the first contest took place in the stand's very first year, in 1916. The New York Times notes the tale was tacked onto the company history relatively late and dismissed it as a creation myth. It's fair to say that over the past 100 years, two things have stayed the same at Nathan's Famous: the hot dog recipe and a pitchman's flair, first introduced by its founder.