How Quarantine Saved the Hot Dog

In 1867 Charles Feltman, a German immigrant, opened the first hot-dog stand in Coney Island. He called his signature frankfurter the Coney Island red hot, and it was served with mustard, sauerkraut and diced raw onions.

Soon, Feltman’s red hots were all the rage. President William Howard Taft tried one. Al Capone is said to have devoured one every night as a teenager before his shift at a local nightclub.

Feltman’s hot dogs were originally made near the Brooklyn Navy Yard and sold from a pie cart. In 1871, an enormous Feltman’s opened in Coney Island. It took up two city blocks and could serve 10,000 diners at once.

It wasn’t long before other companies entered the competition. A young man named Nathan Handwerker worked for Mr. Feltman in 1915. The next year, he opened his own shop, Nathan’s Famous, down the street, where he sold his hot dogs for a nickel less.

Nathan’s ultimately became the dominant brand on the boardwalk, and is known globally for its annual hot dog eating contest on July 4. Feltman’s went out of business in 1954, eight years after Charles Feltman’s sons, who were in their 70s, retired and sold the business to a hotel owner.

But five years ago, Feltman’s of Coney Island returned, with two brothers, once again, at its helm.

Michael and Joe Quinn are relying on their complementary talents and skills to run the business — Michael is a Coney Island history buff and Joe, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, has the business approach of a military strategist. (For example, Joe focused on locking down the Feltman’s supply chain in January, when he first heard about the outbreak).

The brothers have also had good timing: People are pandemic-buying hot dogs like crazy.

Since March of this year, the company has seen a 100 percent increase in sales from supermarkets and a 200 percent increase in online orders.

“Usually sales peak starting Fourth of July weekend,” Joe said. “So far it’s like March and April have turned into July.” Similar sales have been reported for May.

Other Brooklyn-associated hot dog brands are seeing increased business, too. Nathan’s sales are up more than 50 percent. The Brooklyn Hot Dog Company, a start-up in East Williamsburg that makes flavored hot dogs (like Buffalo chicken), has seen its online business grow by 300 percent, according to the company.

ImageFrom left, Joe and Michael Quinn, in front of their Coney Island kiosk, which was open in 2017 and 2018.

The coronavirus outbreak is not the first New York crisis the brothers have navigated. On Sept. 11, they lost their middle brother, Jimmy, who was 23 at the time and an employee at Cantor Fitzgerald, located at One World Trade Center.

Jimmy had always wanted the trio to start a family business, rambling on about it over beers at McSorley’s, the East Village bar where the three were regulars. One of the many ideas tossed around was bringing back Feltman’s.

They had good reason. Their grandfather apparently was in possession of the original Feltman’s hot dog recipe; it had been given to him by a friend who had worked for the company during its Brooklyn Navy Yard days, according to the brothers. In 1992, the grandfather shared the recipe with Michael, knowing he would get a kick out of it.

He did. But it would be years before the hot dog recipe would play out so prominently in the Quinn brothers’ future. After Joe returned from 12 years of military service in 2011, the duo finally decided to bring back Feltman’s.

In 2015, they reintroduced the brand with pop-ups throughout the city. It was a slow start. “One night we only sold six hot dogs,” Michael, 44, said.

But business picked up when they secured a takeout window on St. Marks Place in Manhattan’s East Village, and especially after they opened a kiosk at the birthplace of the Feltman’s hot dog, Coney Island. In 2018, the brothers started to mass produce their hot dogs in a co-packing facility in Troy, N.Y.


Feltman’s now has six people on its team. Led by Joe’s military habit of over-preparing, the employees started planning for a possible pandemic at the end of January.

They conjectured that as baseball stadiums and amusement parks closed and picnics were banned, hot dogs sales would go down across the country.

But the other scenario they considered was that as Americans stocked up on food, an item that was easy to make and could keep up to 10 months in a freezer would be a logical choice to hoard.

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  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 20, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

Joe recalled hearing in the news that some grocery stores at the beginning of the quarantine were limiting hot dog packs to five per customer. “You would think that would be a negative, but we were like,: ‘OK, they can each have five packs. That’s a lot for us.’”

Sure enough, demand at some stores increased. Diane Cleven, the deli director at Fresh Market, a national grocery chain, said that she saw sales of hot dogs increase by over 50 percent. In March she asked Feltman’s to send more product.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the company would receive an order, make the hot dogs, and then ship them off. Now it produces hot dogs every day. “We increased production by 60 percent in March and then again by 170 percent in April,” Joe, 40, said. So far, he continued, May levels will be similar to those of April.

Nathan’s ramped up production, too. Although Smithfield Foods, which owns Nathan’s, has had to close meat plants because of workers testing positive for Covid-19, a company spokeswoman said that Nathan’s has not been “impacted substantially” by the closures. (Nathan’s franks, like Feltman’s, are made with beef, not pork.)

At the beginning of March, the Feltman’s team spoke with ranchers across the country about what might happen to the beef market. They decided to make bulk purchases of beef to safeguard against plant closings — by mid-April they had increased their inventory by 10 times the amount they usually purchased, Joe said — and to freeze it in newly leased cold storage throughout the New York area.

Joe continues to map out contingency plans. “Everyday we are going through different scenarios,” he said. What are the rules and regulations that might change at the supermarket level? What happens if drivers get sick?”

And then there’s the million dollar question Joe can’t stop asking himself: “Are we not going to have a summer?”

His answer, for now: “We don’t even know if July is going to be like July.”

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