Before Nathan’s There Was Feltman’s: The History of the Coney Island Hot Dog

Posted On Mon, June 20, 2016 By

Posted On Mon, June 20, 2016 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 where Joey Chestnut reigns supreme 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

Butcher Charles Feltman arrived in America in 1856 at 15 years old. 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 serving five million customers a year and was billed as the world’s largest restaurant.

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, Coney Island, Coney Island amusement park, Cyclone
Astroland

Feltman's kitchen demolition, Feltman's Coney Island, Astroland
The Feltman’s kitchen being demolished in 2010, via Pablo Jonsey

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.

Feltman's Coney Island, Coney Island hot dogs, Coney Island red hots, hot dog history, Charles Feltman
Michael Quinn’s logo for the new Feltman’s

But Michael Quinn, a Coney Island historian and lover of the Coney Island red hot, is determined to bring Feltman’s back. Last summer that he started a pop-up Feltman’s at Sycamore in Ditmas Park where he served the traditional pork sausages, as well as beef franks. He also moved his pop-up shop around the city. This March, Quinn began crowdfunding to supply the Feltman’s label to local restaurants.

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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.

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