🍟 7/4/2022 – Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Contest

DEEP DIVE 

The Nathan’s Famous July 4th Spectacular 🌭

In 1916, Nathan’s Famous opened their first hot dog stand on Coney Island, New York. Today, they’re known for one of the wildest traditions in America:

The 4th of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, live on ESPN.

Here’s the story behind the Nathan’s Famous franchise, and the contests rise in popularity.

The Original Nathan’s Famous

Nathan Handwerker was a polish immigrant working at an upscale eatery called Feltman’s. In 1916, he went off on his own, and opened a hot dog stand with the name Nathan’s Famous.

Feltman’s was his biggest competitor, so he undercut their prices by 50% to attract customers. Feltman’s was selling their hot dogs for $0.10, while Nathan sold his for $0.05.

Legend has it that in his first year of business, four customers got into an argument on 4th of July. The customers were arguing over who was the most patriotic, so Nathan used it as an opportunity for his business.

He organized a mini hot dog eating contest to decide a winner, but he also thought it could drum up some publicity.

An irishman named James Mullin won the contest after eating 13 hot dogs in 12 minutes. But more importantly for Nathan, the stunt worked to bring in customers, so he decided to make it a tradition each year.

While today the contest airs on national TV and draws in tens of thousands of live spectators, the contest remained small and relatively unknown for decades.

Nathan’s Famous wouldn’t start franchising their brand until 1988, and today they have ~200 locations, down from a peak of ~320 in 2014. 

Oddly enough, 1988 is the same year the hot dog eating contest would be discovered by the person who is responsible for it’s popularity today:

Enter – George Shea

George Shea graduated from college in 1988, and got a job working for an old New York City press agent who went by the name of Morty.

Morty had a knack for PR stunts, and one of his clients happened to be Nathan’s Famous, who was still running their small hot dog eating contest every 4th of July. Morty taught Shea an important lesson in the dark arts of controversy…

During the 1990 contest, a contestant cheated.

I was mortified – there was 2 cameras, I thought it’d be horrible if word got out“, said Shea. But Morty had an idea – he told Shea to get a cop to go arrest the cheater.

I thought it was crazy“, but Shea obliged. 

The added chaos drew tons of attention to the competition and even a few newspaper headlines. Shea references this as his eureka moment that “any controversy is good PR”.

In 1991, Shea took over as host of the event, and doubled down on controversy and absurdity to gain viewers. He campaigned on the radio, worshipping eaters and referring to them as “professional athletes“, and “some of the fiercest competitors in the world“.

In 1997, he founded the International Federation of Competitive Eating, allowing him to promote the “sport” full time. He’d later change the name to to Major League Eating.

It was just me with a bag of banners going to a venue – usually a Mall full of parents taking their daughters to Orange Julius”.

At these events, Shea honed his craft and learned the power of a dramatic narrative. “If you control the narrative, you control everything“, he says.

The Turning Point

A guy eating a bunch of hot dogs is one thing, but a guy in a straw hat pounding tables like an apocalyptic preacher, is such a contrast that it drew people in.

In 2001, George Shea’s theatrics paid off.

The Los Angeles Times wrote a big article over Memorial Day Weekend. It poked fun at the entire idea of competitive eating, but nonetheless it discussed the qualifying schedule that led up to the “Super Bowl of Competitive Eating” aka the Nathan’s Famous July 4th contest. 

The article caught ESPN’s attention, who would eventually acquire the TV rights to the event in 2003. In the years to follow, Shea got exactly what he needed to bring competitive eating into the spotlight:

A RIVALRY.

Takeru Kobayashi, a 5 foot 8 Japanese phenom had already burst onto the competitive eating scene in 2001. He ate 50 hot dogs in 10 minutes, doubling the previous record.

When ESPN first aired the contest in 2004, Kobayashi’s body-wiggling maneuver became a sensation. Dubbed, the “Kobayashi Wiggle”, a technique to help digest food faster, Kobayashi won the event 5 years in row.

But in 2007, a new entrant to the competition would change the competitive eating landscape. The formerly unbeatable Kobayashi lost to American eater, Joey Chestnut, who ate a ridiculous 66 hot dogs.

The victory put the Mustard Belt was in the hands of an American for the 1st time since 1999. Since that 1st victory, Chestnut has won every year since (outside of 20150, and last year set a new record of 76 hot dogs in 10 minutes!

Meanwhile, Kobayashi developed ~beef~ with George Shea in the years following his defeat. Because of Shea’s contracts via Major League Eating, Kobayashi was only allowed to compete in Major League Eating sanctioned events.

So in 2010, Kobayashi boycotted the 4th of July contest, and ultimately played into George Shea’s hands. He attended the event wearing a “Free Kobi” t-shirt, & jumped on stage during Chestnut’s award ceremony.

Since Kobayashi was simply a spectator that year, he was taken away in handcuffs, generating the kind of headlines Shea dreams of. Kobayashi, known as the Godfather of Competitive Eating, hasn’t returned to the event since.

Major League Eating Today

In the ESPN documentary, “The Good, The Bad, The Hungry”, Kobayashi had this to say about Shea:

“In real life, he’s a manipulator, a con artist – he calculates everything. He’s not just a press man, he’s much worse.”

Shea, of course, doesn’t mind the controversy. Since the sport has taken off, the gifted orator hasn’t looked back. Major League Eating now does contests all over the country, with a sickening variety of food:

  • Twinkies
  • Egg Rolls
  • Shrimp Cocktails
  • Strawberry Shortcakes

And Joey “Jaws” Chestnut holds many records beyond just hot dogs:

  • 165 pierogis in 8 minutes
  • 141 hardboiled eggs in 8 minutes
  • 390 shrimp wontons in 8 minutes
  • 257 Hostess Donettes in 6 minutes

If you consider competitive eating a sport, there’s a case to be made that Chestnut is one of the most dominant athletes ever.

Today, the legend continues – as Chestnut attempts to win his 15th Mustard Belt. You can expect 40,000+ live spectators & ~1.5 million viewers via ESPN to watch it.

If you tune in, don’t be surprised to see George Shea cooking up the drama as always!


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