Why Are Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs So Famous?

One of the world's enduring questions is whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich (it totally is). But there's no question about the world's best known hot dog. Nathan's Famous hot dog may have started in a beach shack at Coney Island, but today it's a household name everywhere.

Every Fourth of July, people come from all over the world to participate in and watch Nathan's Famous hot dog eating contest. But Nathan's Famous is about more than the competitive eating contest. This New York City institution has over a hundred years of history and some great stories to go with the most famous hot dog in the world.

The History of Nathan's Hot Dog Restaurant

Nathan's Famous got its start in 1916. Nathan Handwerker, a Polish immigrant, and his wife Ida opened the business with $300 and Ida's secret spice recipe for all-beef franks. Handwerker had been working at Feltman's German Gardens. As one story goes, he was encouraged by performers Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante to compete with Feltman. Some versions of the story have it that Cantor and Durante were the friends that loaned Handwerker the money to start the business.

According to the company's website, plenty of other famous New Yorkers have Nathan's connections as well. Al Capone loved Nathan's, and silent film star Clara Bow worked there as a server. Cary Grant worked at Nathan's as a fry cook, back when he was still known as Archibald Leach. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt served Nathan's hot dogs to British royalty, while First Lady Jackie Kennedy served them at the White House.

The original Nathan's stand is still located at the corner of Surf and Stillwell, just off the Coney Island boardwalk in Brooklyn, New York. With the exception of the newer electronic sign counting down the days to the next Nathan's hot dog eating contest, the stand looks pretty much the same as it did 100 years ago.

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The hot dogs cost a little more these days; in the beginning, they were sold for a nickel, part of Handwerker's plan to compete with Feltman's.

Nathan's has expanded far beyond Coney Island in that time. In 1955, Nathan's opened its second location in Long Island, New York. The third store opened in 1965 in Yonkers, followed by a Times Square location in 1971. Today, you can find Nathan's Famous hot dogs in grocery stores almost anywhere, along with restaurants across the United States and even around the world.

Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest

One of the things that have made Nathan's Famous so, well, famous, is Nathan's Famous Fourth of July eating contest. Crowds of people attend the event in person every year and over a million people watched the competitive eating contest live on ESPN last year. The story of how the contest began is legendary, too.

The legend goes that in 1916 four immigrants were arguing over who was the most patriotic. They decided to settle the argument in a hot dog eating contest at the Coney Island hot dog stand--the person who ate the most hot dogs in 12 minutes would be proven the most patriotic. Even the company's official history cites this event as true, but the first official eating contest on record at Nathan's happened in the early 70s, so where did the 1916 date come from?

In 2010, the New York Times interviewed Mortimer Matz, a well-known public relations agent. Matz told the paper that he and Max Rosey made up the "legend" to help hype the hot dog eating contest, saying, "In Coney Island pitchman style, we made it up."

Today, the eating contest is one of the most popular in the world. It's become a multi-day party, with the competitors participating in a weigh-in the day before the contest with the New York City mayor and lots of hype around individual contestants.

The current men's champion is Joey Chestnut, who has won the Mustard Belt a total of 12 times, including the last four contests. He ate 71 hot dogs in 10 minutes, beating both 2015 champion Matt Stonie and runner-up Darron Breeden. Defending women's competition champion Miki Sudo earned her sixth straight Mustard Belt by eating a total of 31 hot dogs.

The contest isn't open to just anyone. Competitive eaters who want to participate are required to work with Major League Eating; typically they include the defending champion, regional contest winners or qualifiers, and others the MLE might invite. Usually, the contest has about 20 entrants. MLE creates the rules for the contest as well, including what kind of drinks can be used (most contestants have water) and the use of condiments (can be used but aren't usually).

Since 2017, Nathan's has been the official hot dog sponsor of Major League Baseball. The brand has continued to expand to other products and locations, and although the company is no longer owned by the Handwerker family, you can still find the most famous franks in the world on a Coney Island corner.

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