Surprisingly his name is not Coney or even Nathan. When one mentions Brooklyn or the hot dog, his name doesn’t resound with familiarity. He is a relative footnote to Americana but without him, America would be a different place today.
His wares and the location where he sold them at the time were not envied by any competitors. But at every picnic, his invention is ubiquitous. And Coney Island exists today because of his foresight and shrew business sense.
And to boot he wasn’t even born in Brooklyn, but in Verden, Hanover, Germany in 1841.
Charles Feltman immigrated to the U.S. in 1856 at the age of 15. The young teen started as a laborer in a coal yard and then a farm. Charles moved on to less physically demanding work when he wheeled a pie wagon up and down a little known beach on the outskirts of Brooklyn. He sold baked goods and meat products. Business was marginal and his customers demanded something hot. Half cooled pies and luke-warm sausages just didn’t cut it. But how could one deliver a product hot into customer hands?
Charles asked a local wheelwright, named Donavan for help. Charles suggested a burner be installed on his pushcart and the wheelwright agreed and configured a simple oven. Soon Charles was able to throw some sausages into a boiling pot. Once the sausage was placed onto a sliced milk roll the hot dog was invented. The two men shared the first hot dog that very afternoon in 1867 in Donovan’s workshop. Charles at once realized this was going to be big.
His hot dog was a hit and Charles quit pushing the cart and began construction of the Ocean Pavilion. Charles model was this. Businessmen should come to Coney Island during the summer and spend an evening of recreation. This was a huge gamble and his idea was considered laughable by many.
Coney Island was considered a “sandy waste” at the time with little potential for growth. Not only was the island located in the backwaters of Brooklyn, but transportation in and out of the small community was crude and practically non-existent.
Nevertheless, Charles went forward erecting the Ocean Pavilion on a grand scale at a cost of $20,000. It took on the appearance of a German beer garden, including Tyrolean singers and Bavarian brew. Charles also acquired more land for possible future expansion.
If You Build It…..
Charles now had the destination, but not the traffic. He convinced Martin Gunther, the President of Gunther’s Railroad and also the Brooklyn and Coney Island Horse Car Road Company to provide greater and more frequent service to his block. More service equaled more customers.
And they came in droves.
Charles then enlisted the services of the Seventy-first Regiment band to play for the large crowds. Other attractions were then added and a merry-go-round was imported from where else-Germany .In 1885 he installed a steam driven double-decker, Greco-Roman carousel. Year after year he enlarged his showplace. The Pavilion declared itself “caterers to the millions” and financed even greater expansion. His world now included many restaurants, a dancing pavilion, the Ziz roller coaster and an open air movie theater. Modern day Coney Island was born.
Gradually, his Pavilion was a victim to price competition. It seems that Charles was inflexible in pricing his 10 cent hot dogs because he was serving 80,000 annually. A young worker at the Pavilion, Nathan Handwerker , learned the workings of the hot dog trade and saved up $300 to lease a building on Surf Avenue. Nathan’s pricing model was more flexible. He undercut Charles at 5 cents a dog and his name stands alone today on the avenue in Coney Island.
Nathan’s famous owes it all to Charles’ s gamble.
Charles Feltman, the pioneer of a Brooklyn wasteland and the father of the hot dog died in his homeland, Cassel Germany in 1910.