Like a hot dog without a bun: Feltman’s loses Coney Island home
"This is where the hot dog was born."
If you want to eat a Feltman’s of Coney Island hot dog on the site where hot dog inventor Charles Feltman once had a mammoth restaurant — too bad, you’re out of luck.
They’re selling Nathan’s frankfurters now at 1000 Surf Ave.
For the past two seasons, a Feltman’s of Coney Island hot dog stand stood at that location. But after an affiliate of amusement-ride manufacturer Zamperla — which operates the concession stand in Luna Park — chose not to renew its licensing agreement, the site was up for grabs.
Entrepreneur Michael Quinn, who revived the Feltman’s brand in 2015, sees the departure as a lost opportunity for the oceanside neighborhood.
“This could have been a tourist attraction, where people could say, ‘This is where the hot dog was born,’” Quinn, who grew up in Marine Park and has a house there, told the Brooklyn Eagle.
“It could have been so much more.”
Having a restaurant in Coney Island was a big deal for Quinn’s business.
“It was a shot of adrenaline reviving the Feltman’s brand,” he said.
Now that Zamperla’s affiliate, CAI Foods, is serving Nathan’s wieners at the concession stand across from the Cyclone roller coaster, you have to leave Coney Island to find Feltman’s franks.
A Stop & Shop in Gravesend sells one-pound packages of the hot dogs — a 15-minute walk from Coney Island’s seashore.
And, of course, you have to cook them yourself.
A family fascination
Bringing Feltman’s back to Coney Island was something the three Quinn brothers — Michael, Jimmy and Joe — had wanted to do since they were children.
The Quinn family was fascinated by Feltman’s.
Their grandfather often took the three boys to breakfast at the Burger King on Fort Hamilton Parkway across from Green-Wood Cemetery. Through a window, he would point out Charles Feltman’s spectacular mausoleum — topped by a statue of the Archangel Michael holding a sword — as the final resting place of the inventor of the hot dog.
Feltman’s restaurant had been their grandfather’s favorite place to eat in the 1930s, before it went out of business in the 1950s.
When the Quinn brothers grew up, Jimmy went to work on the equities desk at a financial services firm in the World Trade Center. He died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Joe, who was a West Point cadet when his brother was killed, graduated and then served in the U.S. Army.
When he came home after spending 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, Joe told Michael they really should try to revive Feltman’s.
“He said, ‘Let’s do this in memory of Jimmy and our grandfather,’” Michael recalled.
Today, Michael and Joe Quinn co-own Feltman’s of Coney Island.
The business beef
Michael, who owned Coney Island Tours before launching the Feltman’s venture, said he “felt helpless” because he didn’t have any control over the Surf Avenue hot dog stand’s operations.
Feltman’s paid CAI Foods a $5,000 fee for marketing expenses, as their licensing agreement stipulated. But CAI Foods didn’t adhere to licensing-agreement provisions that could have improved sales, he said.
The agreement stipulated the concession stand’s only signage should say “Feltman’s of Coney Island” and its facade should be painted white and red.
But CAI Foods left neon lights that spelled out the name “Cyclone Cafe” on the highly visible corner of the building and added signs for gyros and Ferrari’s Pizza, Michael said. The facade was blue and orange.
He asked CAI Foods employees to straighten out the signage issues, but “they just ignored us, basically.” There was management turnover, which complicated things.
Michael said CAI Foods installed a shawarma stick in the hot dog stand and started selling gyros — without getting his approval for these menu changes, as it was supposed to do.
Customers complained to him about bad service and long waits — which suggested workers weren’t fulfilling the licensing agreement’s requirement that “high professional standards” had to be maintained.
In response to the Eagle’s questions about CAI Foods’ adherence to Feltman’s licensing agreement, a spokesperson for Zamperla said, “Each year at Luna Park in Coney Island we continuously provide our customers with new food and beverage offerings that appeal to our guests’ taste.”
“We appreciate our partnership with Feltman’s over the last couple of years, and wish them success in their future partnerships in our community.”
The beef business
The first brick-and-mortar location for the 21st-century version of Feltman’s was a kiosk Michael operated at Theatre 80 on St. Marks Place in the East Village.
He closed the kiosk last year so he could focus on expanding his packaged hot dog business.
For now, Feltman’s is not actively looking for a place to set up shop in Coney Island, Michael said.
The Feltman’s brand is thriving, thanks to its 1,500-plus nationwide supermarket customers. It also supplies hot dogs to restaurants including McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village.
Feltman’s has licensing agreements with food trucks in the Midwest, and there’s a Feltman’s hot dog stand at the Florida Panthers’ BB&T Center hockey arena.
The bun slicer turned rival
Charles Feltman was a German immigrant with a Coney Island pie wagon. He wrapped sausages in rolls and called them red hots back in 1867.
Feltman’s business boomed, and in due time it became a sprawling entertainment complex. Feltman’s Ocean Pavilion, part of that complex, claimed to be the world’s largest restaurant.
Feltman died in 1910 — six years before his rival-to-be emerged. Nathan Handwerker worked as a bun slicer (apparently, that was a job title a century ago) for Feltman’s sons before starting rival hot dog business — Nathan’s Famous — in 1916.
But, even as it competes with the giant of Nathan’s, the modern-day resurgence of Feltman’s has won positive reviews.
A 2016 Gothamist headline declared it “NYC’s Best Hot Dog.”
Last year, it landed the No. 2 spot on Grub Street’s Absolute Best Hot Dog in New York list. (Nathan’s was Number 12.)
Nationwide, Feltman’s frank was the Daily Meal’s No. 6 pick for its 2018 list of America’s 75 Best Hot Dogs. (Nathan’s was Number 44.)
Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.
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