Thursday, September 15, 2016

by Lloyd Handwerker and Gil Reavill

One hundred years ago (1916) Nathan's Famous was born. Every day, thousands of people thronged the tiny counter space for a frankfurter in a toasted bun that cost five cents at Surf Avenue on Coney Island. At first, during the summer, it was just the tourists who came by. But then the rest of the year, the place stayed open and was monopolized by people who worked in the area. In no time, Nathan's Famous expanded and took over the entire block. It became one of the most popular restaurants in the world. One man brought an innate sense to create a business from the ground up and become quite a success story.
Nathan Handwerker came to America in 1912 from Galicia, Poland. He was one of thirteen children. Both poverty and hunger were the norm. His father, Jacob, was a shoemaker but didn't make enough money to support his family. When Nathan was eleven, he got a job at a bakery and worked there for two years. In the next five years, he helped his mother, Rose, sell produce. It was from this small venture that Nathan learned about supply and demand and how by selling cheap food could eventually reap a fortune. He listened and paid attention. Nathan took the values that he learned from his mother and later applied them to his hot dog stand.
When Nathan arrived at Ellis Island, he was completely illiterate. He could not speak English (only Yiddish) nor was he able to read or write. That didn't stop him. The very next day he was off looking for a job and found one as a shoemaker. It didn't last. He didn't want to be employed in a sweatshop. So, with the help of his brother Israel, Nathan landed a job as a dishwasher at a luncheonette. He knew that he was going to end up in the restaurant business and here was his ticket. Pretty soon he moved up to a busboy, then a server, to working the frankfurter counter learning English along the way. He saved his money and he began to formalize his dream to have his own place (Nathan would call it "the store").
Famous Nathan is a wonderful rags-to-riches story. Written by Nathan's grandson, Lloyd Handwerker, you get a much more personal portrait. Nathan cared about the quality of his food and how important it was to hire the right worker. (He used to say that just by looking at the back of a prospective employee, he could tell right away if that person would be good.) Many of them were quite dedicated and stayed for decades (some for over fifty years). Nathan was intensely loyal to his workers and paid them quite well. There's so many fascinating tidbits to read about in this book: what Coney Island was like at that period of time; the kind of beef that was used in the frankfurters; how money was collected and stored; dealing with inebriated customers; how the store was allowed to remain open during World War II when others had to observe curfew rules; what happened when Nathan's sons got into the business.
This is definitely a great read, especially if you like the food history of New York. At the beginning of each chapter, there is a small black-and-white photo with either quotes by Nathan or other people and sometimes the location of where the photo was taken.
I loved every bit of the book.
Highly recommended.