Will Brooklyn’s original hot dog please stand up?
For almost a century, Nathan’s has enjoyed a largely unchallenged run as the inventor of the frankfurter. But as Brooklyn history aficionados like Michael Quinn will emphatically inform you, Feltman’s actually predated the Coney Island institution by over 40 years (Nathan Handwerker was said to have apprenticed there), with owner, Charles, evolving from pie wagon pusher to boardwalk behemoth, presiding over a block-long empire comprised of nine restaurants, three bars, an outdoor movie theatre and a maple garden.
Which is why the Coney Island tour guide took it upon himself to acquire licensing rights to the faded brand, bringing Feltman’s back to Surf Avenue a good 60 years after its closure—and mere steps away from its legendary rival.
In addition to peddling sauerkraut, onion and mustard-topped Original Frankfurt Sausages (which, incidentally, undercut Nathan’s dogs by a good 10-cents) Feltman’s historically-based variations include the Al Capone, topped with parmesan cheese and vodka sauce, from Michael’s of Brooklyn in Midwood. “Al Capone used to work at the nearby Harvard Inn as a bouncer, and according to his biography, he’d always walk over to Feltman’s to eat hot dogs between shifts,” said Quinn. “Nathan’s claims Al Capone ate over there, but they were only a tiny stand at the time—they weren’t well known. So I think when Feltman’s went out of business, Nathan’s ended up taking a lot of lore and adopting it as their own.”
As Luna Park swarmed with revelers on an unseasonably warm spring day, we chatted with Quinn about Feltman’s felicitous return to Coney Island, their biggest—and totally apropos—new fan, and his grand plans for the Fourth of July.
After years running pop-ups at bars, you’re finally here, back on Surf Avenue, going mano a mano with Nathan’s. What’s their response been?
They’ve been quiet. They’re Goliath, we’re David, we don’t have investors yet. But hey, Nathan’s and Feltman’s both started small, with their carts and stands on the sand. You know something interesting though? In 1932, Nathan Handwerker bought this entire corner from the alleyway to Stillwell, because he had a premonition that Feltman’s was going to take it over. The family still owns the property, but their lease is almost up. I’m good friends with Lloyd Handwerker, Nathan’s grandson, and he’ll tell you, the family is very critical about how the Nathan’s brand has been run since they sold it. So I joked to him, why don’t you hold on to the land, make your grandfather’s food the way it should be, and call the business something else?
Like Grimaldi’s and Juliana’s!
Do you think this town is big enough for the both of you?
It’s good having that push and pull. Coke and Pepsi. Feltman’s and Nathan’s. There’s room for both.
How did this go from being a brainwave to a reality?
It’s been in the works for about two years. I started with the pop-up at Sycamore in Ditmas Park, which was very successful, then did the Parkside Lounge in the East Village. Then the owner of Theatre 80 heard about us—he’s practically the mayor of St. Marks place—he was excited by the return of Feltman’s so we’ve been over there since August. That led to a lot of publicity. I have a longstanding relationship with Luna Park, I do tours for them, and I’m on the community board here in Coney Island. They were looking to do something with this space, I sent them a proposal, and the timing was “boom!” I wanted to keep it a secret, not just from Nathan’s but everyone, so it was all very hush hush. I felt like I was working on the Manhattan Project.
The Brooklyn Project!
But how were you able to obtain the rights to Feltman’s in the first place?
Feltman’s was never branded, like Nathan’s. It was just a restaurant. When the family sold the business in 1946, and Coney Island ceased to become a resort town, it really hurt Feltman’s. When they closed, they all but disappeared. So we applied and acquired the rights, which includes the name, brand and recipe. That process took a little over a year.
You’re obviously a Coney Island history buff, but what triggered your mission to revive Feltman’s?
Feltman’s was like Eataly on a beach. My feeling is now that Coney Island is coming back in a big way, it’s only appropriate that Feltman’s comes back too. Because Feltman’s used to be the neighborhood’s main focal point—it was Eataly on the beach! Charles Feltman really saw the potential of Coney before anyone. He’s the one who convinced Andrew Culver to build an express line from Greenwood Cemetery to West 8th street. Today, that F line is called the Culver Line. And when Feltman invented the hotdog, Coney Island was a wasteland of sand dunes and little saloons and bathhouses. He was selling baked goods here, and wanted to provide people lunch that they didn’t need to eat with a knife and fork. So he had the inspired idea to make some elongated buns, and use them to hold Frankfurt sausages from his native Germany. That’s how he started his empire.
You said you acquired the recipe. Without divulging the secret stuff, what’s in the famous Feltman’s hot dog today?
In the 1920’s when meats were being mass produced, the quality of hot dogs went down across the board. So we stripped the Frankfurt sausage back to what it once was, with lean cuts of beef like sirloin and shoulder, as well as garlic, sea salt, a secret, old world German spice blend and no nitrates. When you look at a package, you don’t need a scientific journal to figure out what’s in there. All the ingredients in hot dogs today have an x and z in there, like my hair conditioner. And don’t get me wrong, I like lower grade hot dogs in the same way I like slim jims and potato chips, but these hot dogs…it’s like going to Smith & Wollensky. Kobayashi [of Nathan’s hot dog contest eating fame] is a big fan. He looked at me after he took his first bite, and said “This doesn’t taste like a hot dog. It tastes like steak.”
Speaking of Kobayashi, any plans for the Fourth of July? What will the Feltman’s response be to Nathan’s annual hot dog eating contest?
I don’t like to copy, so maybe I’ll stage the opposite. How slowly can you can eat a Feltman’s hot dog? I’ve never seen Kobayashi eat something so slowly. He said he did so well at Nathan’s hot dog eating contests, because their franks are so greasy that they slide down your throat. So we’ll do the slowest eater wins, so contestants can savor every bite. We’ll take the higher road with that one.
1000 Surf Avenue, Coney Island
Photos by Jane Bruce