Posts Tagged ‘Nathan's Famous Doctor Stunt’

The 1916 stunt that made Nathan’s Famous a Coney Island hot dog icon

July 26, 2021

No summer visit to Coney Island is complete without a stop at Nathan’s Famous, the iconic boardwalk restaurant that offers everything from burgers to frog legs (really) but made its name back in 1916 selling delicious, cheap hot dogs.

Nathan’s Famous in the 1910s or 1920s

Yet the five cent frankfurters Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker began hawking from a stand on the then-unfinished boardwalk wouldn’t have caught on—if not for a clever stunt he came up with to convince the crowds on Surf Avenue to give his hot dogs a try.

Nathan’s in 1936, with a little competition by Nedick’s on the corner

The story starts in the 1910s, when the reigning hot dog king at Coney Island was Charles Feltman, who ran a successful restaurant and beer garden and supposedly invented the hot dog (or hot dog bun, more precisely).

Handwerker worked for Feltman as a roll cutter and then a hot dog seller before deciding to go into business for himself with a friend, according to Nathan’s Famous: An Unauthorized View of America’s Favorite Frankfurter Company, co-authored by William Handwerker, Nathan’s grandson.

Nathan’s expanded its menu by 1939

Feltman’s and other hot dog establishments sold their franks for 10 cents each. Handwerker priced his at the same rate, but he realized he wasn’t selling enough to make a profit. So he cut the price to a nickel.

Selling hot dogs for the cost of a subway ride sounds like a smart business move. But there was a lot of concern at the time that a hot dog so cheap couldn’t be made out of beef or pork but something a lot less appetizing, like horses, explained Larry McShane in a New York Daily News article marking Nathan’s centennial in 2016.

A Nathan’s customer in 1939

Anticipating this concern on the part of the public, Handwerker came up with a genius idea: He’d hire men to wear white doctor coats and sit around his stand enjoying the cheap franks.

Handwerker “borrowed some doctor’s coats and stethoscopes from Coney Island Hospital personnel and put them on some men and had them eat franks in front of his stand,” wrote William Handwerker. “Potential customers said, ‘If it’s good enough for doctors, it has to be good enough for us.'”

Juicy hot dogs…and an amazing neon boardwalk sign!

Sales increased, and Handwerker began attracting a devoted following. His little frankfurter stand (which didn’t even have a name for its first two years, according to William Handwerker) was on its way to becoming a Coney Island classic.

[Top photo: via New York Daily News; second photo: MCNY 43.131.5.13; third photo: MCNY 43.131.5.91; fourth photo: NYPL]