The famous boardwalk restaurant Nathan’s Famous, which serves everything from burgers to frog legs (really), is a must-visit during any summertime trip to Coney Island. It gained notoriety in 1916 for serving amazing hot dogs at low prices.
However, Nathan Handwerker, a Polish immigrant who started selling five-cent frankfurters from a stand on the incomplete boardwalk, would not have become popular if he hadn’t devised a cunning ruse to persuade the people gathered on Surf Avenue to sample his hot dogs.
The story begins in the 1910s, when Charles Feltman, who owned a prosperous restaurant and beer garden and is credited with inventing the hot dog (or hot dog bun, more precisely), was the undisputed hot dog king of Coney Island.
Afterwards, Handwerker decided to go into business for himself with a friend after working for Feltman as a roll cutter and then a hot dog seller, according to William Handwerker, Nathan’s grandson, who co-wrote Nathan’s Famous: An Unauthorized View of America’s Favorite Frankfurter Company.
The cost of each frank at Feltman’s and other hot dog stands was ten cents. Handwerker set his price at the same level, but soon found he was losing money on sales. He then reduced the cost to one nickel.
Offering hot dogs for as much as a subway ride seems like a wise business decision. Nevertheless, Larry McShane noted in a 2016 New York Daily News piece commemorating Nathan’s centennial that there was much worry at the time that a hot dog so inexpensive couldn’t be made out of beef or pork but rather something far less enticing, like horses.
Handwerker had a brilliant idea in anticipation of the public’s worry: he would hire men to dress in white doctor coats and have them hang around his stand eating the inexpensive franks.
William Handwerker claimed that Handwerker “taken some medical staff’ coats and stethoscopes and put them on some men and had them eat franks in front of his stand.” “If it’s good enough for doctors, it has to be good enough for us,” potential customers said.
Sales rose, and Handwerker started drawing enthusiastic customers. William Handwerker claims that his little frankfurter stand had no name for the first two years and was headed toward becoming a Coney Island staple.