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Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Nathan and Ida Handwerker

Nathan Handwerker and Ida Handwerker at the 50th anniversary of Nathan’s, 1966. Photo By Daniel Farrell. Courtesy of Loquat Films

Nathan Handwerker, the founder of Nathan’s Famous hot dog empire, is a mythic figure in Coney Island history. The story of the young Polish immigrant working at Feltman’s and saving his salary to open a competing restaurant where hot dogs sold for a nickel instead of a dime is the stuff of legend. His grandson Lloyd Handwerker’s documentary Famous Nathan humanizes him and at the same time makes us see that he truly was larger than life. The film premiered on Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival and will be screened again on April 25 and 26.

The opening scene is a sweet first memory in a remarkably candid family memoir: Lloyd and his sister are children being fed loquats plucked from a tree by their grandfather. The documentary is told through home movies, archival photos and footage, the filmmaker’s interviews with a colorful cast of characters including family members and former Nathan’s workers, and the voice of Famous Nathan himself. A 16-minute oral history, condensed from nearly four hours taped by Lloyd’s cousin David Handwerker when their grandfather was 82 is central to the narrative. The cadence of Nathan’s voice and his story reverberate in the imagination even after the film is over: “I want to go to America. I was dreaming about it.”

Nathan says he could neither read nor write, but that he had common sense. His ingenuity is evident every step of the way, from sleeping with his money in his shoes during the voyage, to calling out customers’ orders one at a time at his first restaurant job since he didn’t know a word of English, to keeping the frankfurters from spoiling by storing them in a barrel between layers of ice. He courted his wife-to-be Ida when she opened a little stand next door to his own. Remember those vintage photos of Nathan’s in which the cars are double and triple parked out front? Well, no one ever got a ticket because the cops on the beat were paid $2 a day and all they could eat.

The other side of this successful immigrant’s story is that Nathan was a workaholic, who was by all accounts highly critical of the store’s managers including his sons Murray and Sol. “If he didn’t say anything, he wasn’t criticizing you,” says one of the former managers, who clearly idolized him nonetheless. When it came time to retire, Ida felt as if she were being punished instead of seeing it as a reward, says Lloyd’s uncle Murray. Nathan turned up at the store in a limousine and swept the street, much to the surprise of workers who asked who he was.

At one point in the film, Lloyd asks his father Sol, who is now 88 and the only surviving child of Nathan, if he ever wanted him to go into the family business. Sol says he wanted him to have “a better life, a more interesting life.” Lloyd’s chosen career was cinematography and for the past 30 years he has been piecing together his family’s history.

“My grandfather died when I was 17. I knew him quite well,” the 57-year-old Brooklyn film-maker said in a previous interview with ATZ. His quest appears to have been propelled by the fact that Sol left the family business when Lloyd was 7. Growing up he’d only been to Coney Island a few times and he never worked at Nathan’s. “Why am I here? I guess I’m trying to recreate something of my grandfather,” he says into the camera, as a young man of 30, though he looks much younger, sitting in Nathan’s chair in his office. He has succeeded brilliantly.

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Related posts on ATZ…

April 8, 2014: Photo Album: Classic Chevrolets at Nathan’s Coney Island

March 6, 2014: Tribeca Film Fest to Premiere ‘Famous Nathan’ Doc by Grandson Lloyd Handwerker

March 24, 2013: “Notorious BOB” and Larell Marie Win Nathan’s Hot Dog Qualifier

January 19, 2010: Nathan Slept Here! Coney Island’s Feltman’s Kitchen Set for Demolition

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Frozen custard

Frozen custard from Rita’s Italian Ice. Photo via Facebook.com/RitasItalianIceCompany

The year is only three days old and already another new franchise is set to come to Coney Island in 2014. Rita’s Italian Ice, a company whose tag line is “Ice, Custard and Happiness” will open a store on Surf Avenue in Coney Island. Broker Joe Vitacco tells ATZ he signed a lease with a Rita’s franchise owner for the 1,500 square foot space at 1329 Surf Avenue, on the corner of Surf and West 15th Street. The store is located across the street from Nathan’s and Williams Candy and is expected to be open seasonally, probably from March through October. The current tenant, a social club, will move next door.

Rita’s menu offers Italian ice, frozen custard, layered gelati, sundaes with a choice of 20 toppings, sugar-free treats, and trademark items that blend Italian ice with frozen custard.

Frozen custard is of course one of the lost delights of Coney Island. The dessert made its debut in 1919 when the Kohr brothers opened a stand on the Coney Island Boardwalk. The nickel treat was a sensation, selling 18,460 cones on the first weekend!

sundae with toppings

Frozen custard sundae with toppings from Rita’s Italian Ice. Photo via Facebook.com/RitasItalianIceCompany

Kohr’s Frozen Custard is still in business on the Boardwalks at Seaside Heights and Casino Pier on the Jersey Shore but Kohr’s has shown no interest in making a Coney Island comeback. Businesses in Coney Island which sell ice cream, gelato and soft serve haven’t made any move to bring back frozen custard either, despite the recommendations of old-timers. It’s ironic that thanks to a popular international chain headquartered in Trevose, Pennyslvania, we can look forward to the return of this treat to its place of origin and the celebration of National Frozen Custard Day on August 8th.

Rita’s has over 600 outlets in 21 states and is the latest of a growing number of national and international franchises and chains leasing space on high-priced Surf Avenue in the new Coney Island.

Back in 2012, ATZ asked “Will Coney Island’s Surf Ave Become a Mecca for Franchises?” (December 19, 2012). Clearly, the answer is yes. Like attracts like. In 2014, Johnny Rockets, Red Mango and Subway Cafe, which are currently under construction, will join It’Sugar, Applebee’s, Popeye’s, Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin Robbins and Subway on the main drag of Coney’s amusement district. Also on Surf and in a category unto themselves are Nathan’s original 1916 store, which is a year-round magnet for tourists, and Brooklyn-grown Grimaldi’s Pizzeria.

According to the franchise’s website, Rita’s is the world’s largest Italian ice concept and opened its first international outlet in October in Shenzhen, China. The franchisor for Southern China plans to open 31 outlets over 10 years.

Rita's Italian Ice

Rita’s Italian Ice, Yonkers, NY Store. Via Facebook.com/RitasItalianIceCompany

In the New York metro area, Rita’s year-round locations are on Broadway at 92nd Street in Manhattan –the only store in New York City–and several locations in New Jersey, including Hoboken, and the Izod Center and MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. The majority of stores in New York and neighboring states such as New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennyslvania are open seasonally from March through October. Investment firm Falconhead Capital LLC owns a controlling interest in Rita’s, which was founded in 1984 as a Mom-and-Pop product sold from a porch window in Philadelphia.

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Related posts on ATZ…

December 31, 2013: Amusing the Zillion’s Coney Island 2013 Year in Review

September 11, 2013: Subway Cafe to Replace Furniture Store on Coney Island’s Surf Ave

February 13, 2013: Thor’s Coney Island: Candy Retailer It’Sugar to Open Surf Ave Store

January 28, 2012: Lost Delights of Coney Island: Frozen Custard

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Cretors Model D Popcorn Wagon

1906 Cretors Model D Popcorn Wagon from the McWhirter Collection. Mosby & Co Auctions, November 16, 2013

On November 16, the McWhirter collection of rare antique Cretors popcorn wagons will be on the auction block in Maryland and a family that has been selling caramel corn and caramel apples for 80 years will retire from the popcorn biz. ATZ asked Bob McWhirter, 59, if he would miss it. The answer was both yes and no.

“I can actually remember being 5 years old and working for my grandfather,” he recalled. “My job at that point in time was to open up the bags to get them ready for him to use to sell corn as customers came up. I think I earned 25 cents or 50 cents for the day. I had a ball doing it. I was allowed to sit on the stool and talk to the customers.”

Joe Kitchen's Popcorn Wagon

Joe Kitchen on the street corner in his popcorn wagon. Hibbing, Minnesota, 1935. Photo via popcornbiz.com

The 1906 Cretors Model D “Circus” wagon, the oldest in Saturday’s sale at Mosby & Co. Auctions, is one of his grandfather Joe Kitchen’s original wagons, purchased in the 1930s. The sale has 21 lots from the McWhirter collection, including wagons, popcorn machines and parts, and framed prints.

The family business called “Doc Kitchen’s Kitchenette” was started during the Great Depression. Mr. Kitchen used to tease people that he was the only man he knew that had six kitchens in one house. After he died in 1976, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren carried on the business. “We all work full time and did this on evenings and weekends for 30 years here in northern Virginia,” said McWhirter, who brought the wagons to craft shows, car shows and county fairs. Restored in the 1980s, the 1906 wagon was in near continuous use by the family from 1933 until the mid 2000s.

Cretors Popcorn Machine

Rare Circa 1920 Cretors Popcorn Machine and Peanut Roaster from the McWhirter Collection. Mosby & Co Auctions, November 16, 2013

C. Cretors and Co. has been in business since the 19th century when its founder invented steam powered machines that could roast quantities of peanuts as well as pop corn. Cretors wagons were considered the best of the best by concessionaires and are prized by collectors.

“As I grew older, actually as we all grew older, we were allowed to make caramel apples,” says McWhirter. His grandfather had his own recipe for caramel corn as well as for caramel apples. “We made caramel corn for years and years and years. The recipe that was handed down to me was a scoop of sugar, a can of milk, and seasoning. I had to figure it out from there.”

Model T Popcorn Truck

1922 Model T Custom Bodied Popcorn Truck from the McWhirter Collection. Mosby & Co Auctions, November 16, 2013

Why is the family selling their heirloom wagons now? “We’re getting older,” McWhirter said of himself and his elder sister and brother. “The kids are all having their own families. None of them wanted to carry on so we felt it was unfair to the wagons just to let them sit in the garage and rot. They needed to be taken care of.”

A nephew is keeping one of the wagons, though he currently has no plans to take it on the road. “Right now I think what he might do is pop some corn for the kids in the neighborhood.”

Mosby’s live auction is on November 16 in Frederick, Maryland, but the catalogue is online and you can bid now or in real time during the auction.

UPDATE December 10, 2013:

The popcorn wagons did not find buyers at the auction and are currently available for private sale. If you’re interested in getting into the popcorn biz, visit Kitchen’s Kitchenette website for Bob McWhirter’s contact info.

Cretors Model A Popcorn Wagon

The Model A- Cretors finest, most elaborate and expensive popcorn wagon. McWhirter Collection. Mosby & Co Auctions, November 16, 2013

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