The curious history of the Coney Dog

From 19th-Century German immigrant Charles Feltman to Japanese hot dog champion Takeru Kobayashi, the iconic Coney Island hot dog has had a rollercoaster journey

First published in Vera magazine, August 2018. Photography by Myles Pritchard

At the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade, New York City plumber Chris Geiger has gone a little off-brief. He’s dressed not as Neptune, or a merman, but as a giant squeezy mustard bottle, while his ten-year-old son, Jordan, is dressed as a hot dog. For added authenticity, Chris has painstakingly painted the logo of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs on Jordan’s costume, a reference to Coney Island’s most famous hot dog vendor. “Having a hot dog is the number one thing to do in Coney Island,” Chris says. “It’s part of the history here, and it’s a symbol of the place. Besides, I can’t do rollercoasters.”

The Geigers aren’t alone in having a hot dog when they come to Coney Island, on the southern edge of Brooklyn, which is known around the world for its theme parks, sideshows and general sense of bygone seaside revelry. The queues at the two branches of Nathan’s – including the huge original branch, which opened as a nickel stand on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues in 1916 – are usually the biggest in town, with 20-deep lines of people waiting to wolf down simple beef dogs slathered in ketchup and mustard.

The hot dog was invented in Coney Island, and as I learn over two days here, the Coney dog has a rich, messy history that mirrors the rollercoaster history of Coney Island itself. I get the story from Michael Quinn, a local boy who three years ago resurrected Feltman’s, the original brand of Coney dogs, along with his brother Joe. I meet Quinn, resplendent in a mustard-splodged Feltman’s shirt, over a bright red table outside one of his two hot dog concessions inside Luna Park, the theme park that first opened across the road in 1903, burned down in 1944, and was reopened in 2013.

It was some time around 1867 that Charles Feltman, an immigrant German baker who ran a pushcart pie wagon near the beach, had a brainwave. He decided to bake a special, elongated milk roll that could house a Frankfurter from his native Germany. Designed especially for beach-goers, who wanted to walk and eat, he called it the Coney Island Red Hot. It was an instant smash, even if speculation about the contents of the sausages meant punters began calling these new creations “hot dogs”.

Feltman probably didn’t like that name. And, according to Quinn, he probably would have hated the fact that the hot dog became his most famous legacy. “I think he would have much rather have been known as the guy behind America’s biggest and grandest restaurant, but that’s the part of the story everyone forgets,” he says.

I think Feltman would have much rather have been known as the guy behind America’s biggest and grandest restaurant, but that’s the part of the story everyone forgets.

In 1871, on the back of his stellar hot dog sales, Feltman leased land and began building a grand restaurant complex, originally called Feltman’s German Gardens, on the site where Feltman’s sits today. By the 1920s, when Coney Island had become a buzzing high-end amusement resort, Feltman’s stretched from Surf Avenue to the beach, serving more than five million diners a year. The complex boasted lavish beer gardens, ballrooms, a bathhouse, a rollercoaster, a movie theatre and America’s most famous carousel. At its peak, it employed 1,200 waitstaff, including America’s first singing waiters, and people would travel the country to pay $2.50 for a Shore Dinner, when Quinn says “the entire table would be covered in lobster, clams, turtle, Bluefish, you name it”.

Despite still having seven grills for its ever-popular hot dogs, by 1916 Feltman’s was more focused on seafood and entertainment for everyone from Al Capone to President William Taft. So it was barely noteworthy when a lowly Jewish bun slicer called Nathan Handwerker handed in his notice, and set up a rival stall just down the road, serving similar hot dogs to those at Feltman’s, but for five cents instead of ten. Because there were still concerns about the ingredients of hot dogs, he gave surgeon’s smocks to early customers to fake a health industry seal of approval, and claimed his dogs were both healthy and kosher. Like Feltman’s original idea, it was an instant hit.     

Things changed dramatically, of course, for Coney Island and its hot dogs. After the glory days of the early 20th Century, there was a precipitous decline following the Great Depression and then the War, when the rise of cars and air-conditioned suburban living made salty seaside fun seem passe. After Luna Park closed in 1944, Feltman’s restaurant became a ghost of its former glories, and closed in 1954 (that both are now back is a sure sign of Coney Island’s recent resurgence).   

The more blue-collar Nathan’s was better-placed to survive the years of depression. Nathan’s son Murray opened two more branches in the 1950s and 60s, and in the early 1970s started the now-legendary hot dog eating competition, which takes place every July. In 1987, a group of investors swooped, and Nathan’s has gone from being a family-run affair to a Chinese-owned, NASDAQ-listed behemoth, with hundreds of franchises across America and the world.

Michael Quinn, 42, has seen Coney Island fall and rise again first-hand. Growing up in the area, he remembers a place of “gangs, drugs and amusement parks burning down.” Still, he and his brother Jimmy would swim in the sea and ride the old Cyclone wooden rollercoaster. They vowed one day to start a Coney Island business of their own, a dream that was tragically denied them. Michael had become a schoolteacher in September, 2001, when his brother Jimmy died in the 9/11 attacks. Devastated, he took solace in doing historic walking tours around the Coney Island beachfront. “It was a kind of catharsis for me,” he says. “Being here, and talking about this place, made me feel closer to Jimmy.”

Fifteen years later, Michael and his other brother Joe, who had served in the military, were watching a New York Mets baseball game with a hot dog when they had a Feltman-esque brainwave: they should bring back the Feltman’s brand, honouring Michael and Jimmy’s childhood plan. “It wasn’t just creating a hot dog brand,” says Michael. “It was bringing back an important historic place where my grandfather was a regular, and doing it as a family.”

Quinn admits seeing a certain irony in the fact that Feltman’s is now the plucky underdog, with its $4.25 hot dog ten cents cheaper than the one down the road. But, while the queues at Feltman’s are nothing like those at Nathan’s, the Feltman’s beef hot dogs – made with no artificial ingredients, and typically topped with sauerkraut, as Feltman served them – generally get better reviews. New York City website Gothamist declaring the Feltman’s dog “most likely the best hot dog you’ll ever eat in your life”, while hot dog connoisseur Jon Fox, the man behind the Hot Dog Nation Facebook group, declared it “as good a beef dog as I’ve had”.

Quinn mentions another person who prefers Feltman’s to Nathan’s: Takeru Kobayashi, the legendary Japanese eating champion who created his own slice of Coney Island hot dog history back in 2001. So, the next day, I find myself outside Kobayashi’s front door in the hip neighbourhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn (Mermaid Parade crowds make a trip to Coney Island tricky). When he meets me, he’s wearing a pair of Warhol-esque hot dog print socks and a hot dog tee that shows off thin, toned arms. He has a blue quiff, and seems far younger than his 40 years.

Kobayashi’s story – which he tells me over iced coffee in halted English, and in translation via his publicist Maggie James – is remarkable. Back in 2001, he was a skinny 22-year-old from Japan who turned up jet-lagged at the Coney Island hot dog contest, only to be teased by his burly, macho competitors. “One guy joked that his arm was bigger than both my legs,” Kobayashi recalls. “Another told me that teenagers weren’t allowed to compete.”

One guy joked that his arm was bigger than both my legs. Another told me that teenagers weren’t allowed to compete.

Kobayashi had discovered his ability to eat ridiculous amounts of food in a curry rice fast food chain in Nagano, when friends had challenged him. He’d gone on to win a series of eating competitions in Japan, while studying the science of competitive eating, including expanding his stomach with water. Despite not having ever eaten American-style hot dogs, and having practised with fish sticks, he had figured out the most effective way to eat a hot dog very quickly: by splitting it in two and dunking each half in water to break down the starches in the bread.  

None of the burly guys knew this, until a few minutes into the 2001 contest at Nathan’s. Gradually, the other competitors stopped eating to watch, as the cameras all trained themselves on the kid from Japan. As Kobayashi remembers: “I felt this weird change. Suddenly, it was like the world had stopped and everyone was looking at me.”

I felt this weird change. Suddenly, it was like the world had stopped and everyone was looking at me.

The previous record was 25, and as Kobayashi passed 30, the organisers had run out of signs, and had to frantically write new numbers. When he finally stopped, he’d eaten 50 hot dogs, doubling the previous record. The new record was so outlandish that some people claimed aliens had abducted Kobayashi and replaced his stomach.

Either way, it changed competitive eating for good: as the sport exploded in popularity, everyone started dipping their dogs in water, including Joey Chestnut, the American current Nathan’s champion, and the only real rival to Kobayashi’s crown as the greatest eater ever. Kobayashi’s approach – of “training to eat like you would for baseball or soccer” – has become the new normal, even if his many world records are hard to touch: from hamburgers (93 in eight minutes) to tacos (159 in ten) and pork buns (100 in 12 minutes). After his 2001 win, Kobayashi would win six consecutive Nathan’s hot dog competitions.

But the story of Kobayashi and Nathan’s would go very sour. In 2010, he didn’t compete at the annual hot dog eating competition, having refused to sign an exclusive contract with Major League Eating (MLE), competitive eating’s governing body. Nonetheless, he turned up at the event and took to the stage to congratulate other eaters, only to be arrested and spend a night in a tough Brooklyn prison (when he came out, he famously said: “I’m hungry”). He hasn’t competed at Nathan’s since, and tells me that he still feels “disgusted” by what happened.

So, it’s perhaps little surprise that Kobayashi – a “health freak” away from training – favours Feltman’s hot dogs over the Nathan’s dogs. “Nathan’s hot dogs are so salty, and pumped full of chemicals,” he says. “But Feltman’s hot dogs are almost like steaks, with real ingredients. I couldn’t eat as many, though, as they have a real snap, and aren’t as greasy.”  

Still, whatever people say, and whatever is really in this sausages, it’s unlikely the queues for Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs will die down any time soon. At both Nathan’s and now Feltman’s, they’re queueing for more than a sausage in a bun. They’re in line for a messy bite of pop culture history, which began right here in Coney Island.  

 

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