How An Icon Evolves

Review: How Nathan’s Famous Evolved & Their Bright Future As They Embark On Another Decade

 

By Chef Vincent Tropepe

Not very many restaurants gain the title of “food institution” or have the word “iconic” associated with them and what they serve, but there is no place on earth then Coney Island’s Nathan’s Famous.

Nathan Handwerker owner of Nathan's

Most people know Nathan’s through national and international media coverage for their 4thof July Hot Dog eating contest, that has competitors from all over the globe to come to the orginal Nathan’s location to take the stage and see how many buns and dogs they can consume.  Nathan’s hot dog eating competition started when it’s founder had a push cart selling their hot dogs.  Because in the early 1900’s here was no such thing as computers, the Internet or social media, this competition became Nathan’s gimmick and throughout the decades became a tradition firmly planted in the food world

Nathan Hardwerker, (pictured to the right) is the man behind Nathan’s Famous.

Hardwerker was born in 1892 in Galicia, a former kingdom and constituent part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire in the partitioned Poland under the Austrian rule that roughly spanned the contemporary Poland – Ukraine border. Nathan immigrated to the United States in 1912.  He found work as a delivery person and later obtained a job slicing bread rolls at Feltman’s German Gardens a restaurant in Coney Island.  The restaurants sold hot dogs for ten cents each at the time.  Although it is not noted in Nathan’s Famous official historical story, while Nathan was working at Feltman’s German Garden, singing waiter Jimmy Durante encouraged Nathan to go into business competing with Feltman’s.  Nathan and his wife Ida spent their life savings of $300 to open a small hot dog stand with a two foot grill on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues.  

They spiced their hot dogs with Ida’s special blend and sold them for a nickel each.Through the years, like most businesses, there comes a time that as a company, selling hot dogs alone (even exceptional ones) won’t keep a business in business.  Nathan’s started to offer a wider range of products like their equally famous crinkle cut French fries and this year as we embark on a new decade Nathan’s famous made notable signature menu items as well as substantial partnerships and collaborations. Additionally, with new locations opening Nathan’s design sporting contemporary loft like seating in come locations is also a great design addition. To write this article however, I went back to where it all started in Coney Island.  Usually, in the summer time streets and beaches of Coney Island are so populated it looks like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, but with COVID-19 lingering they were bare.  But even with that substantially less number of people the one place that still had a line was Nathan’s.

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To visit Nathan’s and not order a hot dog would seem nothing less then a sin.  I ordered it purely ceremoniously and of course they were fantastic. What had me curious was the new line of crafted double Angus beef patty burgers. The BBQ Bacon Tribeca had BBQ sauce, onion rings, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese while the NY Attitude Burger had bacon, pickles, bistro sauce, caramelized onions, cheese on an everything hamburger bun.  Nathan’s also made measurable positive upgrades to the Philadelphia Cheese steak sandwich they have been offering for years that was already in its original form very good, now partnering with Pat LaFrieda made it even better.  The pastrami hero certainly gives Katz’s a run for it’s money and offering small valuable touch of using a Bathazar hero roll that also adds additional brand value.  Chicken sandwich selections and names are somewhat repetitive to the burgers and have two four-ounce chicken breasts.  In all areas of the menu, the food offers a balance in flavors that clearly makes the taste buds send a clear message to the brain that something special is happening.

The evolution of the Nathan’s menu shows that as a brand they are committed to taking steps to keep relevant and competitive while preserving their concept and culinary identity.  Although Nathan and Ida are not here to personally see how the Nathan brand continues to hold its place in Brooklyn’s culinary history, Nathan’s is an example of something far bigger then that.  It’s the perfect example of how an icon can evolve and do so with the same consistency that was instilled over a century ago.

Photo Credit: Nathan Neon Sign Namir Felder

 

 

 

 

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