Relish in the rags-to-riches story of Nathan's Famous hot dogs


On Monday, dozens of professional eaters will gather in Coney Island to chow down hundreds of hot dogs for an audience of millions for the annual Fourth of July hot dog eating contest. Nathan's Famous has been serving its classic hot dogs at the Coney Island Amusement Park in New York for 100 years, and the annual contest has become the highlight of every Fourth of July.

Nathan's served up its first frank 100 years ago, but who was the original Nathan?

No longer a family-owned business, Lloyd Handwerker still has a hard time talking about some parts of the business his grandfather created. But eating the hot dog his grandparents made famous has always been easy, reports "CBS This Morning: Saturday" co-host Vinita Nair.

Fourth of July tradition: Nathan's famous hot... 01:22

"It definitely makes me think about my grandfather," Lloyd said.

His grandfather was Nathan Handwerker, a poor Polish immigrant who came to the United States in 1912. His first job was at a bakery and the next two were at restaurants that sold frankfurters.

"First of all, he only called it a frankfurter. He never called it a hot dog. If you look at the signage, it might even still say 'frankfurter' actually," Lloyd said. "Hot dog is a slang, right."

When his grandfather first started the business, it was largely a "drink place," selling fresh pineapple juice, orange juice and fresh lemonade.

"He sold the frankfurter for 10 cents, which everyone else was doing on Coney Island. And at some point, he decided he wasn't making enough money, so he decided 'I'm going to sell it cheaper, I'm going to undercut everyone else - I'm going to sell it for a nickel,'" Lloyd said. In New York, the home of the hot dog is the block-long institution that flourishes year round in Coney Island. It goes by the name Nathan's Famous.

Handwerker spent 30 years working on his 2014 documentary, "Famous Nathan." His grandfather's half-price strategy worked. Nathan's counter was so busy, he had to hire a bouncer to keep the customers moving. By the 1950s, his frankfurters - made with the highest quality beef and seasoned with an old world spice blend - were famous. They were served on a perfectly toasted bun. Nathan and his wife Ida oversaw every detail.

"There's a very well-known story about my grandfather constantly sampling the hot dog in its raw form. If he wasn't happy with it - if he thought the fat content wasn't right, if he thought the water content wasn't right - he'd send the whole truck," Lloyd said.

"Was his militant, one-sided focus what made this place so successful?" Nair asked.

Joey Chestnut wins Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Co... 01:57

"I think so. He cared about the customer. He really did. You know, he grew up poor. He wanted the customer to have a good, inexpensive meal," Lloyd said.

But while Nathan's two sons understood his vision, they disagreed on how to achieve it. Lloyd was just 7 when his father left Nathan's.

"They didn't seem to know how to get along within the business," Lloyd said. "My family sold the company in '87."

Randy Watts is now the vice president of franchise operations. From one stand, Nathan's Famous has grown to 56,000 in all 50 states and 11 countries. The biggest day of business is the Fourth of July. Of the 1,500 hot dogs that are prepared for Nathan's annual hot dog eating contest, a little over a thousand are actually eaten. And the hot dogs today are still made from the same original recipe.

"Anything you can tell me about that spice blend? Like is there one magic ingredient?" Nair asked.

"There's a little hint of garlic in it that makes it very unique," Watts said, smiling.

To his grandson, it was always Nathan who made the business unique. He says his grandpa came up with the hot dog eating contest on his own, but that his family's legacy extends far beyond.

"Nobody thinks of the Fourth of July without thinking about that contest," Nair said.

"Well, I'm very proud of my grandfather and my grandmother. It's an amazing legacy for sure," Lloyd said. "I mean, it was a remarkable place. Coney Island was a remarkable place. Nathan's was a remarkable place, and you know, what's not to be proud of?"