Every Fourth of July, thousands of bystanders flock to Coney Island to watch the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. The premise is simple—who can eat the most of Nathan’s hot dogs in 10 minutes?
Part eating contest, part marketing strategy, and part tradition, the competition harked back to the brand’s invention more than 100 years ago. In 1916, founder Nathan Handwerker opened his first hot dog stand on Coney Island, starting an empire that would eventually reach millions of customers across the country and around the world. Handwerker sold his hot dogs for five cents apiece—half the price of his competitor and former employer Feltman’s—and soon gained a reputation for offering inexpensive, delicious food. According to urban legend, the Hot Dog Eating Contest began that same year on July 4, when four immigrants challenged each other to eat as many Nathan’s hot dogs as possible to prove who was the most patriotic (the alleged winner, James Mullen, scarfed down 13 hot dogs in 12 minutes).
Nathan’s started with hot dogs based on a family recipe but has since expanded its offerings to include hot dog buns, as well as fixings like pickles, onion rings, and chili topping and sides like its famous crinkle-cut French fries. The early years attracted the attention of celebrities such as Al Capone and Clara Bow and presidents like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The expansion was reasonably slow, but a clam bar, full-service restaurants, and a booming franchise operation developed in the second half of the twentieth century. Today, Nathan’s products are found in local grocery stores, as well as dedicated Nathan’s restaurants, and concession stands in major cities across the U.S.
Nathan’s brand recognition is such that the name is synonymous with words like “hot dog,” “crinkle-cut”—and even “America.” In 1939, FDR brought Nathan’s famous hot dogs to the King and Queen of England as an act of patriotism. In 2017, Nathan’s earned the distinction of being the “first official hot dog” of Major League Baseball, America’s national pastime. And every Fourth of July since 1972, the Hot Dog Eating Contest has been televised on ESPN.
Despite its widespread success, Nathan’s has not forgotten its humble origins. The original Nathan’s restaurant remains in the same spot at the corner of Surf and Stillwell on Coney Island – and still hosts the annual Hot Dog Eating Contest a century after its founding.