By Rena Gray
“It was in Galicia, Austria-occupied Poland, on June 14, 1892, that Nathan Handwerker had the misfortune to be born.”
So begins the story of one of the best-known purveyors of the humble hot dog, the man behind Nathan’s Famous.
Written by Nathan’s grandson Lloyd Handwerker, “Famous Nathan: A Family Saga of Coney Island, the American Dream, and the Search for the Perfect Hot Dog” paints a comprehensive picture of the life and persona of Nathan Handwerker.
The author presents each stage of his journey within the context of concurrent world events and includes additional background information on individuals as they relate to the story. The book also covers the evolution of Coney Island, Nathan’s secret to perfectly crispy potato chips and the etymological background of “hot dog.”
Many successful entrepreneurs have sprouted from the throes of a difficult beginning, and Nathan was no different.
The third-oldest son in a family of 13, Nathan was more than familiar with poverty and hunger. He was first apprenticed to his father in the trade of shoemaking at the age of 6, but it was at his first job in a bakery that he learned the necessity of hard work and the advantages of being employed in an environment whose principle commodity was food.
When Europe seemed to be moving closer what would prove to be World War I, Nathan joined the masses in immigrating to the fabled America in 1912. Armed with only a cooked chicken, money in his shoes, and the determination of one who has nothing to lose and everything to gain, Nathan embarked on his adventure to a new world without knowledge of the language or any literacy.
Like the thousands of refugees who joined him, Nathan’s primary objective was to find work.
His first stop, at a luggage factory, was short-lived.
“I wanted something else, not to be a shopman,” Nathan said.
He found a position at a luncheonette to be much more appealing, even though the pay was half what he earned in the sweatshop. Unlike the factory, here he was always guaranteed a meal.
With the gall of a desperate yet quick-learning immigrant, Nathan rose through the ranks of the food service industry, not even understanding the phrases he was boldly announcing to customers. Thus Nathan Handwerker learned to speak English.
Searching for work beyond the hours of a typical workweek brought Nathan to the blossoming shores of Coney Island. His placement at the frankfurter station of an existing restaurant planted the seed that led the mature 24-year-old to open his first blip of a shop.
The real money started coming in when Nathan dropped his prices to a competitive nickel a dog. His acute business sense coupled with precision and dedication to quality propelled him to the top the food chain, literally.
Nathan’s tale has within it the ups and downs of a life lived without apologies — love, loss, family, strife and rare success. Unique to his saga is the dominion he attained over his food item of choice and the fond popularity that became associated with the name on his sign.