How Nathan’s Famous turned competitive eating into a national spectacle | CNN Business (2024)

How Nathan’s Famous turned competitive eating into a national spectacle | CNN Business (1)

A plate full of hot dogs is seen during the 2022 Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4, 2022 in New York City.

New York CNN

Every Fourth of July, starting when she was 15, Jacqueline Lewis and her family come together to honor a great American tradition: the Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating competition.

“I think people want to know how many hot dogs a human can eat in that amount of time.” Lewis, now 26, told CNN on a warm June day while eating miniature corn dogs (at a leisurely pace) outside of the original Nathan’s location in Coney Island. “I think they want to know.”

Lewis and her family aren’t the only ones who want to see how many franks competitors can scarf down in 10 minutes. Each year, close to two million people watch Nathan’s hot dog eating contest on ESPN, according to the frankfurter brand. Tens of thousands of spectators come out to Brooklyn’s Coney Island to watch the event in person. Competitors train for months in advance, preparing their bodies to consume thousands of calories in just a few minutes. When it was announced recently that reigning champion Joey Chestnut was barred from competing this year over his deal with Impossible Foods – a plant-based meat company – it made national headlines.

Nathan’s, and the marketing visionaries behind the annual event, helped shape competitive eating as we know it today: a bombastic, showy sport that some say symbolizes America’s obsession with excess.

But eating contests date back. Way back.

Two men, many ginger cakes

It seems like people have always had a fascination with how much someone can eat and how quickly.

“Speed and volume competitions pop up in Greek myth, in the Eddas of Norse myth, and even in what may be mankind’s first novel, Apuleius’ ‘Golden Ass,’ written in the second century A.D.,” wrote Jason fa*gone in his book “Horsem*n of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream.”

In the United States, the tradition goes back a few hundred years. fa*gone cites a 1793 Pennsylvania newspaper that described an event in which two men “undertook to eat twenty-four ginger cakes each.”

Over time, pie eating contests became a regular part of Fourth of July celebrations as well as “a natural icebreaker for picnics, summer camps, and county fairs,” fa*gone wrote.

How Nathan’s Famous turned competitive eating into a national spectacle | CNN Business (2)

Boys participating in a pie eating contest at the 4-H Club fair in Cimarron, Kansas. August 1939.

In the 19th century, there were basically two kinds of contests, explained Adrienne Bitar, a lecturer in American studies at Cornell University and the author of “Diet and the Disease of Civilization.” There was speed eating —who could eat the most in a set amount of time —and untimed competitions, where the winner was the person who could eat the most, full stop. The foods back then were simpler, and unbranded. People competed over onions, eggs, watermelon and pies.

The contests were “very lighthearted,” she said, and not nearly as physically taxing as they are today — they were “athletic like a three legged race is athletic.”

When Nathan’s starting putting on its annual event in the 1970s, it looked more like those early contests. At the time, PR mavens Max Rosey and Mortimer Matz thought a hot dog eating competition would drum up some publicity for Nathan’s. (They also seem to have made up the legend that the first Nathan’s contest was held in 1916).

Back then, “there was still kind of like a local flavor to it … the competitors were mostly just big guys from Long Island,” fa*gone told CNN. Contestants would enter, rapidly eat some hot dogs and go back home to their own barbecues, he said.

Melody Andorfer was the winner of the first official Nathan’s contest in 1972, according to the Coney Island History Project. She ate 12 hot dogs in 5 minutes — beating all other competitors, men and women, she told the non-profit in an interview in 2020.

That first year, Nathan’s used barrels and a plank of wood to make the competitors table, she recalled. “They put a white plastic tablecloth there. In front of you, they put on a paper plate hot dogs and no mustard, nothing to drink. Just the hot dogs.”

A couple of decades later, in the 1990s, brothers George and Richard Shea took over marketing for Nathan’s. George Shea, who still hosts the competition, helped turn the homespun event into a gigantic spectacle.

Hot dog publicity

Americans say the annual competition is about many things: Coney Island, the Fourth of July, patriotism — but the event that kicked off the rise of mainstream competitive eating in the United States is, at its core, about publicity, the man who runs the contest said.

“It is a sport that did not start as a sport. It was a platform for exposure for Nathan’s and certainly many other brands in the years that followed,” said George Shea, who co-founded Major League Eating, the professional league that now oversees the competition.

Shea took over the contest in 1991 when Rosey died. Before Shea stepped in, he said, the contests included a couple of cameras, a handful of competitors and “15 or 20 onlookers who just happened to be passersby and stopped.”

How Nathan’s Famous turned competitive eating into a national spectacle | CNN Business (3)

George Shea attends 2015 Nathan's Famous 4th Of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island on July 4, 2015 in New York City.

As host, Shea cultivated a persona designed to hype the event. He stands on stage in a flat-top straw hat and a suit and tie. Leading up to the contest, he makes grand proclamations about life and poetry as dramatic music plays. When announcing competitors, he builds up anticipation, treating the event more like a boxing match than a hot dog eating contest.

The act is “a little bit of Coney Island, it’s a little bit of sports reporter, it’s a little bit of apocalyptic preacher,” Shea said. “The whole thing is just fantastic. You get up there, there are no rules, you say and do whatever you want and it’s all about getting in motion, expressing the emotion … and universally the reaction I get from people is just ‘this is not what I expected and I really love it,’” Shea said.

It took a while to bring that performance to the mainstream. About a decade into his tenure as leader of the competition, Shea pitched a story to the LA Times. The ensuing article introduced the idea to a new part of the country, he said.

After that, Shea signed deals for a documentary and TV special — just as superstar Takeru Kobayashi came onto the scene in 2001 and “blew it open,” Shea said.

“It was coincidental and very mutually beneficial — the timing was very good because he had enormous star power,” Shea said.

The first year he participated in the contest, Kobayashi ate 50 hot dogsnearly double the 2000 winner.

How Nathan’s Famous turned competitive eating into a national spectacle | CNN Business (4)

Twenty-three year-old Takeru Kobayashi of Japan raises his hands in victory July 4, 2001 at the 86th annual Nathan's Famous International 4th of July Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island in Brooklyn, NY. Kobayashi, who was the odds on favorite, broke the world record of 25 and 1/8 set by fellow countryman Kazutoyo Arai by eating 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes.

Kobayashi showed “that you could treat (the contest) as an athletic activity and excel,” fa*gone said. The Japanese newcomer had taken the pursuit seriously, training and coming up with a novel way to approach the contest (separate hot dogs from buns and snap the frankfurters in half before eating).

The intensity of the training, and the achievement, lent legitimacy to the whole endeavor. A few years later, ESPN started broadcasting the event.

An American tradition, for better or worse

For some, competitive eating is a symbol of American culture — the good and the bad.

Eating contests are “a celebration of excess,” Bitar said, part and parcel of the myth of America that attracted immigrants when the country was still young. They represent “this larger fantasy, this national American fairy tale about consuming without consequence.”

Kobayashi himself has pierced that fantasy, revealing in a Netflix documentary show called “Hack Your Health” that he no longer feels hunger and that he’s worried competitive eating may have lasting ramifications for his health. (Nevertheless, he plans to compete against Chestnut in an upcoming Netflix special).

The contests have staying power in part because of their shock value, Bitar said. Competitive eating “breaks all sorts of etiquette and social norms,” she said. “It’s one of these moments where all of our rules are broken.”

Shea also pointed to an underlying tension as a reason that Americans still watch the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest after all these years. He described it as the “element of ‘wait you’re not supposed to do that’ and ‘I can’t believe he’s doing that or she’s doing that.’”

How Nathan’s Famous turned competitive eating into a national spectacle | CNN Business (5)

Joey Chestnut eats hot dogs during the 2022 Nathans Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4, 2022 at Coney Island in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

But he sees the contest as a special event, one that symbolizes something else: happiness.

“It goes to New York City history … but more important, hot dogs represent to me the joy of summer.”

Beatrice Fellman, 25, agrees. The Coney Island visitor, who described the hot dog as “America’s meal” on that warm day in June, said it stands for “patriotism and a good time.”

Fellman was one of many on a crowded boardwalk, flooded with hundreds of beachgoers trying to soak up the sun, carrying towels and beach chairs. The mood was celebratory. Bass bumped from speakers and a live band played to about a dozen people dancing. Despite the heat, there were lines at both Nathan’s locations, where people waited for the famous hot dogs and crinkle-cut french fries.

“We love the Nathan’s hot dog eating competition because we love how it brings the city together,” Fellman said, standing with a group of her friends, all wearing Nathan’s hot dog eating contest T-shirts. “It celebrates a beautiful American comfort food that is the hot dog.”

How Nathan’s Famous turned competitive eating into a national spectacle | CNN Business (2024)

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