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Nathan's Famous sets the stage for eat-offs internationally

Nathan's Famous hot dogs.

Nathan's Famous hot dogs. Credit: Nathan's Famous hot dogs. (Getty Images)

The Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog-Eating Contest was a silly little “Hey Mabel!” curiosity invented in the heyday of stunt publicity somewhere around 1916.

In the early 1990s, publicists George and Richard Shea took over the kooky Coney Island sideshow and took it big — very big. The Sheas unearthed the contest’s mustard yellow “championship belt” and when a Japanese competitor won it, they insisted that it was a matter of national pride to have “America” win it back.

Soon there were regional qualifying matches around the country. As the number of hot dogs consumed by contestants bulged ever upward, other entities held eat-offs to land their own squirt of free publicity. The Sheas, seeing an opportunity, took competitive eating professional, forming Major League Eating (and its governing body, the International Federation of Competitive Eating) to “develop, publicize and execute world-class eating events in all varieties of food disciplines.”

“We’ve done oysters in New Orleans, lobsters in Maine and chicken wings in Buffalo,” as well as rocky mountain oysters in Denver, recounted George Shea. He was surprised to find that “pepperoni rolls are like the state food of Kentucky.” Matzoh ball and pastrami gobbling contests have been hosted by various Jewish delis in New York City.

One thing they don’t sponsor? Bug eating contests. Or any kind of stuff-o-rama involving the consumption of dangerous and repulsive substances. (A man died in a Florida pet store’s cockroach eating contest last year, after bug parts apparently blocked his air way.) “That’s not what we do!” groaned Shea, pointing out that his contests ideally encourage consumption of the foods spotlighted in the tourneys. Also, “We’ve never had an injury — never with us! We always have an EMT on hand,” just in case something untoward occurs, Shea said.

The Nathan;s contest - which is broadcast by ESPN (“we have a licensing agreement with them,” Shea explained) — has been variously described as the superbowl and master’s tournament of competitive eating. It is an obvious boon for Nathan’s. The growth of the contest has been "unbelievable! We're getting tens of millions of dollars of free publicity!" said Wayne Norbitz, the president and CEO of Nathan's, which is headquartered in Jericho, LI. Norbitz dubbed the avalanche of eating contests that followed Nathan's "flattering," noting that 40,000 spectators are expected to attend his company's Coney Island eat-off Thursday. "I've been asked to put the hot dog eating contest in a stadium, but I don't want to do that," he said. Having the event at Nathan's flagship in Coney Island "is part of the gestalt," Norbitz explained.

Shea was ecstatic when President Barack Obama was documented watching the Nathan's Hot Dog contest on ESPN in his campaign bus in 2008. It has been Shea's intention to iconically connect Nathan's to Independence day along with the familiar images of the liberty bell and new immigrants taking their citizenship oaths. "Nathan's has cultural ownership of the Fourth of July!" crowed Shea.

Seasonally, the contest is ideal, noted Norbitz: Sales of Nathan's all beef franks (430 million were sold last year) reliably plump up in summer, when grills beckon.

The annual publicity coup - plus the explosion of other contests, was accomplished "by being smart, funny, and understanding how the media works," said Shea.

About that championship belt: How big is it? "It has been on stomachs that are small and stomachs that are large," vamped Shea. Yeah, but what size is it? "I would say it's a 36," said Shea, noting that competitive eaters today are increasingly likely to sport "athletic physiques."

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