On a recent Thursday evening, Kirk Daniels, a 36-year-old father of two, was on the phone with his wife in line at Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island when a sign caught his eye. “Hold on,” he told her. “What day is it? It’s Thursday, right?”
The answer was emblazoned on a discreet banner: “THROWBACK THURSDAYS,” it read. “5¢ HOT DOG. ORIGINAL 1916 PRICE WITH PURCHASE OF ANY REGULARLY-PRICED FOOD ITEM! 5PM—CLOSE.”
Just in time for Coney Island’s recent reopening this month, Nathan’s brought back 5-cent hot dogs to its flagship location. The ongoing Thursday special — it’s how much the wieners were originally priced — is the first time the hot dog empire has brought back the bargain with any regularity. The promotion has been tested out at a Nathan’s test kitchen site in Yonkers, another location in Long Island, and “franchisees sprinkled throughout the country,” says Phil McCann, senior director of marketing at Nathan’s Famous, who adds that locations pushing the promotion have seen Thursdays dominate sales since the trials began in 2016, increasing traffic 50 percent in the summer and 35 percent year-round at those locations. The Coney Island promotion — which had short one-day stints during a centennial celebration in May 2016 and for National Hot Dog Day last July — has no plans to end.
There are a few rules, however. Like the teenagers in front of Daniels, he wondered if the restaurant’s 99-cent apple pies counted as a regularly-priced food item and if there was a limit on these bargain all-beef hot dogs.
Brittany, a cashier, answered a few basics: The apple pies don’t count as regularly-priced food item. But every time customers order anything — burgers, hot dogs, fries, and other chicken or seafood dishes (even frog legs) — they can pair a 5-cent dog with it. Two orders of fries, for example, could score two 5-cent dogs. There is no limit, and Brittany says she’s seen customers walk away with as many as 10 5-cent dogs.
The hot dogs, which usually cost $4.75 at the Coney Island location, are now at a 98.95 percent discount on Thursday evenings. After buying a cheesesteak sandwich, fries, and two regular-price dogs, Daniels scored four 5-cent dogs for his family.
“Thursday foot traffic got well ahead of even a Saturday or Friday night. We figured Coney is Coney, but times are changing. Why not get this going at Coney as well?,” says McCann, before teasing: “This year we are kind of evolving the hot dog menu. There are going to be some new dogs at Nathan’s in the coming weeks. Our Impossible burger was just a test.”
Nathan’s Impossible burgers are part of a slate of revamped menu items, including cheesesteaks now made with Pat LaFrieda beef, a New York “Attitude” burger with an everything-spiced bun, a spicy Hell’s Kitchen burger, and a Tribeca burger (that’s somehow not overpriced). The changes came from James Walker, formerly Subway’s vice president of North America, who joined in 2019 as Nathan’s senior vice president for restaurants.
“The snap is so unique,” says McCann of Nathan’s plain dogs (he favors a simple mustard dressing with occasional sauerkraut). “The flavor is the secret spice recipe made the same way we did 105 years ago, from Nathan’s wife’s Ida’s grandmother’s recipe. All kidding aside, it’s an American tradition.” He adds that only five people alive know the hot dog recipe.
The promotion has good timing — not only because Coney Island reopened this month and New York needs all the good restaurant news it can get, but also because, according to Eric Mittenthal, president of the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, a third of all hot dogs sold nationally every year fit between Memorial Day and Labor Day. (The council is supported by 20 hot dog producers, but not Nathan’s Famous.)
“Hot dogs have been extremely popular this year,” says Mittenthal, who favors chili dogs with onions and mustard. “In the first month of the pandemic, hot dog sales were up 125 percent over 2019 and then leveled off throughout the rest of the year but stayed about 20 percent higher than 2019 across 2020 as a whole. In March 2021, sales were still up 11.5 percent over March 2019.”
Mittenthal has an armchair theory why: “There’s a special connection to your childhood. It’s something all kids like, so when you eat it as an adult it brings you back to that fond childhood memory.”
Such nostalgia is amplified by places like Nathan’s, which bills itself as “the flavor of New York.” New York is, obviously, hot dog heaven.