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5 Business Lessons from Nathan Handwerker, Founder of Nathan’s Famous

June 9, 2016

America’s favorite frankfurter company, Nathan’s Famous, officially turns 100 years old!  My grandfather Nathan Handwerker’s entrepreneurship, combined with common sense, determination and grit, was what made him a special businessman.  Nathan started like so many millions of immigrants who came to this country with nothing but hope and the determination to make something of their lives. What made him special was his blindness to people’s physical and religious differences when it came to hiring the right people and creating his “working family.”  His employees were from all ethnicities and backgrounds.  Nathan’s main concern was their dedication to the job they did.  If they were loyal and worked as hard as they could, he would do everything he could to help them.

Family businesses are the cornerstone of the American Dream, and Nathan’s Famous was no different. When my grandfather and father were building the company, I was still a young man just aching to work there. When I finally began working in Coney Island, I realized then how popular the restaurant was; I was proud to be part of the company’s history–Nathan’s had just celebrated its 50th anniversary a couple of years prior.  I knew that I had to do whatever I could to continue in my family’s footsteps and try to bring it to an even higher level.

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For insight into what has made Nathan’s Famous such a unique success, here are five “Frank” lessons to guide you in business and in life.

Frank Lesson I:

Always differentiate yourself from your competitors.  Being known as something unique will usually put you ahead of the pack.

Instead of mimicking the status quo in Coney Island of selling hot dogs for the standard 10-cent price, Nathan decided to break the cycle and lower his price. He started selling his hot dogs for 5 cents, which still allowed him to make a profit, but he felt that he could draw more customers and make up for it in volume.  The rest is history.

Frank Lesson II:

Have respect for all personnel, no matter what your position is in your business: boss or worker.  Respect the decisions of your superior or expect the consequences.

Nathan had an employee who disrespected him by not listening to his instructions and then acted in an uncalled for manner. Nathan fired the employee in a way that still respected the man as a person. Whether you are an employee or a boss, everyone should act in a professional manner at all times.

Frank Lesson III:

Be prepared to change with the times. Make concessions, but always remain true to the guiding principles that got you where you are.

Eventually the Yonkers facility needed a facelift. In the early 1980’s, we renovated the store to implement the standard fast food industry service methodology. Then, in 2013 the company tore it down and built a new, smaller unit that was a traditionally designed fast food restaurant operation which included some historical funky photos and murals of some old Coney Island scenes.

Frank Lesson IV:

Competition forces people to operate at a higher level and to meet or exceed the competitor’s experience.

This Frank Lesson deals with understanding your market and the competition.  During the late 1970’s, the original restaurants had to recognize that fast food service was changing.  Customers expected to order and receive all products from one service line, so Nathan’s had to change their service methodology to meet the needs of the customer. While the food servicing changed, the food quality stayed the same, and the company continues to reap the benefits.

Frank Lesson V:

Always be honest and forthcoming with your business partners. It is these relationships that support your business.

During the mid to late 1970’s, Nathan’s Famous experienced financial stress and made specific promises and commitments to its suppliers.  We only promised what we could deliver, and our partners respected our word. Ultimately, after our situation stabilized, all of our business partners were made whole again.

These lessons from a hard-nosed immigrant taught me more than I could ever learn from textbooks or academic settings. I am a product of my years with Nathan’s Famous. I am even more confident that the lessons I learned from my grandfather and father–and from working within the family business–could be extremely valuable and meaningful to anyone starting a new company or looking to grow an existing one.

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About The Author

William Handwerker is the grandson of Nathan Handwerker, founder of Nathan’s Famous, the iconic Coney Island, New York institution, working alongside his grandfather, and father Murray for 30 years. William penned the book to commemorate his family’s business legacy for one of America’s favorite foods. William has been interviewed by The Food Network, History Channel, The New York Times, The New York Post, The New York Daily News, and numerous other media.

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