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 his father had suffered from dementia and died in his sleep.
Handwerker's father Nathan opened the Coney Island stand in 1916, four years after emigrating from Poland. Murray was born five years later, on July 25, 1921, and spent so much time in the restaurant he said he came to regard the frankfurter bun boxes as his playpen.
Murray went on to work in nearly every aspect of the business, from stacking pallets of hot dogs to manning the grill. As a teenager, Murray told his son 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 Nathan's had, Handwerker returned from Army service in World War II with a broader worldview and new ideas on expanding the business his father always thought would be a single stand.
Nathan's eventually became a fixture. Its 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.
"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."
Murray 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.
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. Murray's son said his father enjoyed hot dogs to the very end of his life, and even had one for lunch not long before his death.
He always ate his frankfurters the same, his son said: "Au naturel."
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