Before Nathan’s there was Feltman’s: The history of the Coney Island hot dog

Posted On Tue, July 3, 2018 By

Posted On Tue, July 3, 2018 By In Coney Island, Features, History

It’s not often that you’ll go to a New York restaurant and find “hot dog” on the menu. The meaty delight is typically reserved for baseball games (in the foot-long variety) and summertime jaunts on the boardwalk. And of course, when we say boardwalk in NYC, we’re talking about Coney Island, widely believed to be the birthplace of the modern American frankfurter.

The name Nathan’s has become synonymous with Coney Island, whether it be for the annual hot dog-eating contest or the childhood nostalgia of the boardwalk. It’s also become arguably the biggest name in the hot dog world in general. But, believe it or not, Nathan’s was not the first place to serve up franks in the seaside neighborhood. That distinction goes to Feltman’s, which was begun in 1867 as a pushcart by German immigrant Charles Feltman, considered the inventor of the hot dog on a bun.

Feltman's Coney Island, Coney Island hot dogs, Coney Island red hots, hot dog history, Charles Feltman

Feltman's Coney Island, Coney Island hot dogs, Coney Island red hots, hot dog history, Charles Feltman
Feltman’s via Boston Public Library

German butcher Charles Feltman arrived in America in 1856 at 15 years old, already familiar with the frankfurter from his home country. According to the Coney Island History Project:

Charles Feltman began his career in 1867 pushing a pie wagon through the sand dunes of Coney Island. Four years later he leased a small plot of land and began building an empire that by the early 1900s covered a full city block and consisted of nine restaurants, a roller coaster, a carousel, a ballroom, an outdoor movie theater, a hotel, a beer garden, a bathhouse, a pavilion, a Tyrolean village, two enormous bars and a maple garden.

By the 1920s, Feltman’s Ocean Pavilion was considered the largest restaurant in the entire world, serving more than five million customers a year and selling 40,000 hot dogs a day.

Feltman's Coney Island, Coney Island hot dogs, Coney Island red hots, hot dog history, Charles Feltman
Placemat from Feltman’s via Green-Wood

Feltman's Coney Island, Coney Island hot dogs, Coney Island red hots, hot dog history, Charles Feltman
The gardens of Feltman’s

Feltman's Coney Island, Coney Island hot dogs, Coney Island red hots, hot dog history, Charles Feltman
The Frankfurter stand at Feltman’s, via Boston Public Library

Legend has it that Feltman decided to put his pork sausage on a bun as a way to avoid providing plates and cutlery. The hot dogs, which were known as Coney Island red hots, sold for ten cents each, but interestingly, it was the restaurant’s shore dinner, a seafood platter of lobster, fish, and oysters, that was most popular at the restaurant. Feltman’s was such a success that even President Taft and Diamond Jim Brady stopped by.

Nathan's Famous, Coney Island hot dogs, Coney Island red hots, hot dog history
Nathan’s Famous in 1939 via MCNY

But in 1916, a Polish-American employee of Feltman’s named Nathan Handwerker changed the course of hot dog history forever. Handwerker sliced rolls and ran hot dogs to the grilling stations. Two of his buddies, performers Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante, encouraged him to start his own business, so for the next year he ate free hot dogs and slept on the kitchen floor to save his $11/week paycheck. Once he saved $300, he opened his own restaurant just a few blocks away on Surf Avenue. Before long, Nathan’s Famous became the go-to spot on the Coney Island boardwalk, gaining fame for its hot dogs, which Handwerker sold for five cents, half the price of Feltman’s.

Astroland via Wiki Commons

It should be noted, though, that Feltman’s lasted until 1954, so it’s not quite fair to say that Nathan’s put it out of business, but rather that it outlasted it as a very different type of establishment. Feltman’s was a complete amusement paradise, often catering to the upper class, whereas Nathan’s was a place to grab a quick, tasty, and affordable bite. Charles Feltman died in 1910, but his family ran the business until selling it in the 1940s. In 1962, Dewey Albert and his son Jerry bought the site and transformed it into the Astroland Park, home to the famous Coney Island Cyclone. Sadly, Astroland ceased operations in 2008, and two years later, the last remaining structure of Feltman’s, the kitchen, was torn down.

Via Feltman’s of Coney Island

But Michael Quinn, a Coney Island historian and lover of the Coney Island red hot, is determined to bring Feltman’s back. Three summers ago, he started a pop-up Feltman’s that moved around the city. The following year, Quinn began crowdfunding to supply the Feltman’s label to local restaurants, and he’s since taken them into local grocery stores, including Fairway, as well as mail order, where they retail for $12 for a six-pack. Quinn also opened Feltman’s Kitchen on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village

But the biggest news is that this past Memorial Day, Quinn’s Feltman’s of Coney Island Restaurant replaced the Cyclone Cafe and a White Castle on West 10th and Surf Avenue–the original Feltman’s location. He also opened a hot dog kiosk at Luna Park.  There will also be a Feltman’s hot dog kiosk located inside Luna Park. According to the Coney Island blog:

Michael Quinn has worked out a licensing agreement with Luna Park to bring the legendary name back to Coney Island which includes his company investing in the new signage and supplying the park with Feltman’s of Coney Island brand hot dogs. Quinn will also train the staff in how to prepare the original Coney Island hot dog.

Many local blogs have voted Feltman’s as the best in NYC, but the truest honor comes via hot dog eating contest champion Kobayashi who said eating one of their franks is like “eating steak!” Find out where you can get your hands on some Feltman’s hot dogs here >>

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Neighborhoods : Coney Island

  • urban_wanderer

    Thanks for posting this interesting story. I’m glad to see Quinn’s keeping the graphics from the original Feltman’s. Feltman’s had the German beer garden look that was so prevalent in pre-World War I New York. It would be nice to bring that back to Coney Island.

  • Joseph Vitacco, Jr.

    I remember going to Feltman’s as a little boy with my parents. Years later while working at the BPSC in Breezy Point I met the family, very nice people. It would be great if Feltman’s could return to Coney Island now that Coney Island is becoming a major amusement area once again. There are some great location available. Joe Vitacco
    http://www.loopnet.com/xNet/MainSite/User/Home/MyListings.aspx?LinkCode=29390

  • Richard Lindemann Jr.

    I had a Feltman’s dog at William Barnacle Tavern. Best hot dog I’ve ever had!

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