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M. Handwerker; helped make Nathan's famous nationwide

Murray Handwerker, eating hot dogs with a New York police officer in 1982, sold Nathan’s Famous in 1987. Murray Handwerker, eating hot dogs with a New York police officer in 1982, sold Nathan’s Famous in 1987. (Associated Press)
By Matt Sedensky
Associated Press / May 16, 2011

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MIAMI — Murray Handwerker, who helped grow Nathan’s Famous from his father’s Coney Island hot dog stand into a national franchise, died Saturday at his home in Palm Beach Gardens. He was 89.

His son, Bill, said Mr. Handwerker had suffered from dementia and died in his sleep.

Mr. Handwerker’s father Nathan opened the Coney Island stand in 1916, four years after emigrating from Poland. Murray was born five years later, and spent so much time in the restaurant he said he came to regard the frankfurter bun boxes as his playpen.

Mr. Handwerker went on to work in nearly every aspect of the business, from stacking pallets of hot dogs to manning the grill. He told his son that as a teenager, he sometimes worked at the grill so long his body had trouble recovering.

“His fingers started flapping like he was using the pincher when he came home from the store,’’ Bill Handwerker said.

Seeing the appeal that Nathan’s had, Mr. Handwerker returned from Army service in World War II with new ideas on expanding the business his father always thought would be a single stand.

“My grandfather was of a generation that he felt that it was for the family,’’ Bill Handwerker said, “and that Coney Island was all that was necessary.’’

But Mr. Handwerker brought home a broader world view.

He expanded the restaurant within New York, then outside the region. He offered franchises. He led the company to go public. And he put its hot dogs on supermarket shelves across the country.

Nathan’s became a fixture. The company’s hot dogs were served to the British monarchy by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, were a constant magnet for mobster Al Capone, and were even flown to a London party for Barbra Streisand.

Mr. Handwerker sold the company to private investors in 1987, but the brand lives on.

His wife of 67 years, the former Dorothy Frankel, died two years ago.

Mr. Handwerker’s son said his father enjoyed hot dogs to the end of his life, and had one for lunch not long before his death.

He always ate his frankfurters the same, his son said: “Au naturel.’’