When an unassuming Coney Island hot dog stand opened in 1916, no one imagined that it would become an iconic American institution. But over a century later Nathan’s has become one of the most recognizable names in hot dogs, and if you ever visit the corner of Surf and Stillwell you’ll see the original restaurant is still open and operating today.
The story of Nathan’s is about as American as their product. Jewish immigrant Nathan Handwerker started a nickel frankfurter business with his wife Ida. Having only arrived in the United States a few years prior in 1912, they invested their life savings of $300 to start a company that would outlive both of them. Using Ida’s recipe and her grandmother’s secret spice blend, they created one of the most famous hot dogs in the world.
However, it took nearly 40 years for Nathan’s to expand beyond its Coney Island location. That wasn’t until Nathan and Ida’s son Murray Handwerker took over the business and opened additional branches in Long Island, Yonkers, and Queens in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Nathan’s didn’t go national until the ’80s, when the Handwerker family sold the company to private investors, which allowed the brand to be franchised. This is when the name really took off beyond New York, especially in food courts across the nation’s malls. A few years prior to this corporate shift, Nathan’s hot dogs hit supermarket shelves, which also elevated their profile.
Of course, beyond franchising, one of the main ways Nathan’s gained their notoriety is with their annual hot dog eating contest. Every Fourth of July, crowds gather at the original Coney Island stand to watch competitive eaters take on epic amounts of meat. It’s probably the most famous competitive eating contest in the world, but how did it come to be?
Legend has it that the contest began in 1916 when four local immigrants got into an argument over who loved America the most. In order to prove their patriotism, they decided to settle the score in the most gluttonous, and American, way possible–by stuffing their faces with hot dogs. Whoever ate the most within a certain amount of time would emerge the winner. As quaint as this tale is, it’s completely false. In an interview with the New York Times in 2010 promoter Mortimer “Morty” Matz admitted to completely fabricating this origin story as a publicity stunt.
So when did the contest actually begin? The first recorded event took place in 1972. While the official Nathan’s website claims it took place on the Fourth of July, one New York Times account reports it occurred during Memorial Day weekend. (Yes, more hot dog-eating controversy!) Another contest also took place during Labor Day that same year. What’s for sure is that the ’70s were the decade in which this spectacle became an annual event, one that has grown increasingly theatrical and competitive year after year.
In 1997, Major League Eating (MLE) officially sanctioned the event. Only members of the league are allowed to compete, and about 20 contestants make it to the stage each year. In 2003, the contest reached another milestone when ESPN began televising the event, devoting an hour of coverage to it every Fourth of July. The pomp and circumstance surrounding the contest is truly a delight to behold. Competitors have garnered bold nicknames, like the ominous “Eater X,” and come out to their own theme music (just like pro wrestlers!). They intimidate their opponents in much the same way. Suffice it to say, any one capable of stuffing 60-plus hot dogs in their mouth is very intimidating.
The event has drawn crowds of over 50,000 people. Despite its falsely patriotic origins, the contest is now a holiday mainstay, much like the hot dog itself. Even if you’re not gorging on six dozen sausages, you’ve probably had a Nathan’s dog before, or at the very least marveled at their crinkle-cut cheese fries. One thing remains certain, Nathan’s will be here to stay for at least another century to come.
Header image courtesy of Nathan's.