Advice For Restaurants With Eating Contests

I don't fool with a lot of things that I can't have fun with. There's not much reward in that. - Levon Helm

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This section is LOADED with tips, secrets, and advice for restaurant and food business owners wanting to know how to host a successful eating contest or other food eating competition to promote their small business along with providing fun & entertainment for customers and clients. You can find some additional tips in my Advice For Restaurants With Food Challenges section, but here is some great advice for restaurants and sponsors wanting to specifically host an eating contest. If you follow these tips, the contest will be A LOT more fun & exciting to watch, there will be A LOT more participation, the competition will be A LOT better, and you will get A LOT better advertising for your business. Most importantly, you will get A LOT more BANG for all of the BUCKS that you just spent to host it...

Establish All Of The Details!!

Before you do anything to promote your event or let anybody know about it, you must first establish all of the details regarding the contest. If you don't, people will have all sorts of questions and will lose interest. Here are the main details that you need to establish:
 
Date & Time- First, you must figure out what day the contest will be on, and the time that you will have it. If you are having the contest during a festival or event, the date is already set, so you just have to pick the time. Schedule the contest separate from all of the other events going on because you don't want people to have to choose which event they want to see. If your event is only for a few hours during the day, I suggest that you have the contest towards the end as a big finale. People will stay until the end so that they can watch the eating contest, and then the event can be over after the award ceremony. Then while the eating contest is happening, all of the vendors can start cleaning up their spots. If its a weekend festival, pick a time when their will already be a lot of people there, preferably Friday night or Saturday during the day.

Obviously don't hold the contest very early in the day before allowing a lot of people to get there.  If you are a restaurant just wanting to host an eating contest that is not specifically part of a festival/event, the easiest time to pick is when there will already be people there. If you are a sports bar, hold the contest during the halftime of a big game!! It will give your customers some entertainment during the intermission, and more people will want to participate. If you are in a college town or city with a winning team, you may want to host the event during the halftime of an away game. A great time to host a contest is on big sporting event days such as the Super Bowl. Another great day to host a contest is on a particular holiday that celebrates the heritage of your restaurant. If you are an Irish pub, have it on St. Patrick's Day!! If you are a mexican restaurant, have it on Cinco de Mayo!! This is why the Nathan's Hot Dog Contest is on the 4th of July. Pick a date & time that will work okay for everybody, and more people will participate.

Food- This is one of the easiest decisions, picking which food that you want the eaters to consume. If your event surrounds a type of food, obviously you want to use that particular food in the contest. If your event is called Baconfest, you better use bacon!! If you have a food challenge at your restaurant & you are wanting to host an eating challenge/contest, that makes the decision really easy. Just use your food challenge as the food. Other than that, pick a food that works well for the event. On Super Bowl Sunday, you may want to use an American type of food such as hamburgers. On St. Patrick's Day, use corned beef sandwiches. In some cases, especially contests benefitting a charity, you may want to work with a sponsor. Use the food that you can get donated by a particular food vendor. Most food vendors are very open to these opportunities because its great advertising and it promotes a great image for the company. If your restaurant is particularly known for a menu item, you may want to use that for the contest. Pick a food that tastes great and works well with the environment, & more people will want to eat it!!

Length Of Contest- Another important detail is how long the contest will last. There are many factors to think about when choosing a contest length. First of all, I don't suggest having a contest that lasts more than 15 minutes. In competitive eating, 12 minutes is a marathon. 15 minutes is an ultra-marathon!! Plus, the crowd is going to start losing interest after 10 minutes. If the contest is too long, spectators will get bored and you don't want that. If you want more competition, the contest needs to be shorter. In many contests, even in IFOCE events, there is 1 or 2 people that have a greater capacity than all the others. After about 5 minutes, those people will start breaking away from the competition at a rapid pace. If the contest is real long, the stronger eaters may even double the totals of the people behind them. In most cases though, he or she will start to ease-up and coast to a victory which just makes the contest more uneventful for all the spectators watching.

Another factor to consider is how much food you have available. If your supply is limited, or the cost of food is expensive, you may want to consider a shorter contest. If the food is cheaper, you can most likely consider a slightly longer contest. Another big factor that most people don't think about is that as the contest goes on longer, there is a higher chance of people throwing up. Most people are not used to eating fast, so they have a higher chance of getting sick. When people start puking, half of the spectators start laughing and the other half gets grossed out. Then the contest turns into a circus, which you definitely don't want. People start pointing fingers and arguments can occur which makes all parties involved look bad. The final factor to think about is prizes. As the length of a contest increases, generally the prizes should increase in value. With a longer contest, winners have to eat & drink more, and they should be rewarded for that. If not, why would they put forth much effort?

Entrance Fees- One of the minor details to decide is whether to charge people to enter the contest. Generally, I don't recommend charging people to enter an eating contest, especially if the prizes are not very good. If you are going to charge, I definitely don't recommend making the entrance fee expensive. Competitive eating is not like poker where a rookie can just get really lucky & beat an experienced player. For most people, this is only going to be their 1st or 2nd contest and he or she is mostly doing the contest for fun. Its not very fun to pay a bunch of money just to get dominated by somebody who is a lot better and more experienced than you.

If you charge an entrance fee, you most likely won't get that many participants. Small entrance fees are ok in 3 situations. You can have them if the money is going towards the prizes, towards the cost of the food, or is 100% going to a charity beneficiary. They should NOT be to make money. You will make money on all the people watching, eating, and drinking. One good thing about a small entrance fee is that it prevents somebody from simply just getting a free meal. If you are expecting multiple great eaters to attend your contest, and you have a worthy prize, you can consider having a more costly entrance fee. Just don't expect anybody else to really participate though unless its going towards a great charity organization, & he or she would donate anyway towards that particular cause.

As a final note, if somebody is fine with paying the entrance fee, thats probably because he or she is confident that they will make it back as a prize. I did a jalapeno contest that charged an entrance fee, paying $500 to the winner, $300 to 2nd, & $200 to 3rd. You could not signup early, and the first 30 applicants got accepted. I had to travel an hour, and got off work late, so I was late to signup. To get in, I had to pay a guy his entrance fee + $20 so that I could take his spot. I won 1st place, & more than made my money back!!

Contest Rules-  To make the contest run smoothly and prevent arguing, you need to establish a strict set of contest rules. If you are new to contests, you may want to use the rules from another contest as a guideline. Here are some examples that I have found that are pretty well-written & definitely show the necessary rules to include: Option 1, Option 2, & Option 3. Those three are pretty extensive though. For a simple example, click here. Those rules are pretty self-explanatory, but I would like to stress 2 rules that you must have.

First, you must have a rule about whether you can dunk the food or not. Will the contest be "picnic style" or one where anything goes? Establish that rule so that nobody cheats. If you are going to allow dunking, please be aware of cheaters leaving an excessive amount of "debris" in their cups. They will purposely leave pieces of food in their cups where nobody can see so that their totals increase.

The other rule that you need to include is a rule about puking. In a compeitive eating contest, its pretty standard that you are not allowed to have a "reversal of fortune" during the contest, but you need to establish rules about once the contest ends. If this rule is not set, and the winner "gets sick" right after the contest ends, A LOT of controversey will start. Therefore, set a time limit that nobody is allowed to puke after the contest. Typically, if somebody is going to get sick, it will happen fairly quickly after the contest. 5 minutes is a pretty good time to set. Anything more is unnecessary.

Finally, one minor rule that you may want to establish is a rule about "chipmunking." This is where people stuff a bunch of food into their mouth in the last seconds of a contest in order to increase their total. To help this, set a specific time that people are allowed to finish swallowing the food in their mouth. Typically the standards are 30-60 seconds. If it takes the person longer to swallow, you must deduct some from their final total. Most of the time, this rule does not come into play. Definitely create a good set of contest rules, and the event will be a lot more fun and will run A LOT smoother.

Prizes- Finally, to get participants, the most important factor is the prizes available to winners!! If the prizes are good, better competitive eaters are more willing to travel to compete in your event which will make the competition a lot better and more exciting. If you only have small prizes, you may only attract local people. Also, in general, better prizes make everybody more willing to participate. If you don't really have the budget to have great cash prizes, try seeking some sponsors to partner with. In return for sponsoring a cash prize or other prize, you will include them in all the promotions for the contest. If you try hard enough, you should definitely be able to find some interested sponsors.

If you try that option, turn on the marketing side of your brain, and focus on the companies that would be most likely to benefit from the contest. You will have a lot easier time if the contest is benefitting a charity organization or families in need. You don't always have to have a cash prize. Work with sponsors, or consider your budget, and find some items to offer as prizes. I have seen TVs, video game systems, sports memorabilia, vacation trips, gift certificates, and other items awarded as prizes. If you are having a contest during the halftime of a football game, and its not a real tough contest, you may award something as simple as a team jersey.

Get creative!! Creative prizes are often more appealing. One time, I received a toaster sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon, which brands PBR's logo into the toast. While I wish that I had received cash, I thought that prize was pretty unique & cool. If you award great prizes, the contest will end up a lot more exciting, more people will participate, and it will be A LOT easier to promote your event...

Promote The Event!!

Why does a restaurant host a contest, or sponsor a contest at an event? They do it to advertise & promote the restaurant so that they can attract more customers & business!! Therefore you need to promote the event!! This sounds so simple, but hardly anybody does it, & the restaurants that do usually don't do it very well. I was just recently in an eating contest down in Dallas, Texas. It was a contest celebrating the 70th anniversary of a restaurant with over 170 locations across the country. There were 7 qualifiers held throughout the nation, and the winners were to be flown to Dallas, Texas for the final contest which was to be held at the original location.

I won my qualifier in Overland Park, Kansas and became one of the seven finalists. On the day of the contest, hardly any customers attended the celebration. About 40 people watched, and half of them were the restaurant's employees. There was only 1 media person there, and he was only there because he was following me and all the food challenges I did that weekend. My friends that lived 3 minutes away right down the street did not even know about the contest. Why did this happen? The restaurant did a terrible job of promoting the contest!! They spent thousands of dollars getting the 7 of us to Dallas, along with $950 in prize money, and they got absolutely nothing out of it. Here are some tips to help you promote your contest so that you get results, & this does not happen to you:
 
Develop A Poster/Sign- The first group of people that you want to attract is the people that already attend your restaurant. Once you have established the details of the contest, create a cool looking sign that includes all the details of the contest, along with all of the contest sponsors. The best thing to do is to have somebody create it on the computer so that you have an electronic copy. Hang the signs in all the places where your customers will see them such as the bathroom. Along with a sign, have your employees spread the word. If a customer orders a bunch of food, or finishes their meal before anybody else, have the server mention the contest to that individual. You want to focus a lot of attention on regular customers, because they are the most likely to attend. Also, they may spread the word to their family & friends that might be interested. I have heard about multiple contests through friends that attend those particular places. I have also gotten random picture text messages of posters & menus advertising challenges & contests.

Use The Internet!!- These are the days of technology. How many people still read the ads in the newspaper? A lot of people still do, but that costs money and those people are not really the type that would be interested in an eating contest. Therefore, use all the free sources available on the world wide web. Hopefully your restaurant has a facebook and/or twitter account that gets routinely updated. If not, you are already behind the times!! If you made a sign on the computer, its easy to post that on your accounts so that all your fans can see. Also, include the contest in your daily status updates. You need to post the updates at different times too each day. These days, everybody posts WAY TOO MANY things about themselves, and this makes it hard to reach your entire audience. Also, people login at different times of the day. Facebook & Twitter can be very valuable tools for spreading the news to possilble participants.

It would also be good to post the event to sites such as Craigslist.com & Eatfeats.com. On Craigslist.com, post the eating contest as a "gig" and say that you are looking for people interested in eating during the contest. Post all of the details, especially prizes, and you may get some interest & responses. Eatfeats.com is a website dedicated to competitive eating & eating challenges. Almost all competitive eaters, especially "independents" which are your target group, use Eatfeats.com to find out the eating challenges and contests coming up in their area. Make sure to contact ojrifkin@yahoo.com, the owner of Eatfeats.com, to make sure that the contest appears on the site. The people that will find the contest on Eatfeats.com are the people that you really want at your contest to add a higher level of competition. If your restaurant operates a website, its a no-brainer to include an advertisement regarding the contest on the website. There are a lot of ways to advertise your eating contest for free on the internet. You just have to use them & make them work.

Contact The Media!!- This is also a no-brainer thing to do, but hardly anybody ever does it. Have you ever seen something about an eating contest on the news? If you have, that is because somebody contacted the station!! There is a lot of news that happens everyday that nobody ever hears about, and thats because nobody takes the time to contact any media, which is almost always FREE!! In almost every big city, there are multiple tv stations and newspapers. Try calling all of them to see who is interested. Not all tv stations report the same thing. If they did, why would we need more than one? You have to be a salesperson. If one station is not interested because they are too busy, call the next. Its a lot easier to attract media attention if you start calling a week in advance. If you start too late, the stations may already be booked. Plus, it depends on what is happening that weekend in the city. If there is a huge event that all the stations are covering, your eating contest may not be considered a high priority. Hopefully you considered this when planning it!!

There are 2 ways to use media. You can use them to advertise your event, or you can try to get them to cover your contest. If the contest is for charity, you have a high chance of being able to advertise your event. This is where you go to the station on the morning or afternoon news the day of or the day before your contest for a brief 2-3 minute clip talking about the eating contest and who it benefits. This is a fun chance to hold a mini-contest. Have a person (like me) go in and have a 30 second or 1 minute contest for fun with one of the news anchors. This is great for everybody because its fun for the news anchors, great advertising for the restaurant, and viewers have fun watching all of the fun & laughter.

The other way to use media is to have them cover your event. In this case, a reporter will come to report on the event. Then the event will show up on the evening news or in the newspaper the next day with the winners of the contest along with other important details. Check out the website of each media outlet to get the correct contact information. In addition to newspapers & tv news stations, you may try local radio stations to work somthing out. Sometimes this may cost money though. Contacting the media is one of the best ways to reach out to people that normally would not have heard about the event. Once a big media outlet covers an event, it usually spreads to a few smaller outlets, further increasing your advertising. Start at the top, and just keep trying!!

Hire A Promotions Company- If you don't already have a working Facebook or Twitter account, starting one will not help you now to promote this contest, since you have no fans/followers yet. Plus, if you don't have one already, you honestly don't have much marketing experience or knowledge, so it may help to hire a company to help advertise. You may ask a friend or another restaurant owner to refer a company, or just try an internet search. You are either going to want a public relations (PR) company or a newspaper that focusus more on restaurants & food. Before you do this, figure out your budget and what you are willing to spend. Then the company will be able to give you a better understanding of marketing possibilities.

Publish The Results!!- Just because your event is over, this does not mean that your job is over. Publish the contest results!! Just because a person did not attend the event, this does not mean they were not interested. They may have been busy or had other plans. The people interested most likely follow your restaurant on Facebook and/or Twitter already. Publish the results and let everybody know the winner and his or her totals. Also, contact Eatfeats.com again with the results so that he can publish the results in the database. If you don't publish the results, people automatically develop a negative response. They figure that either the contest was uneventful & nobody showed up, or they figure that something negative happened which the restaurant does not want to get out to the public, such as cheating or the contest was "fixed." You only have one shot, so get everything you can while you can!!

Host The Contest & Make It Fun!!

Now that you have set all the rules, established the details, named the prizes, promoted the event, and have people willing to eat, you just have to actually host the contest!! A poorly hosted & disorganized contest looks bad on everybody involved, and is easily preventable. You just have to have the right people in place. Here are some tips to help you host a successful contest:
 
You Need An Announcer- The announcer of a contest has 2 jobs. His or her first job is to entertain the crowd and keep everybody interested during the contest. This includes making introductions, commenting during the contest, counting down the end, and announcing the winners. The second job is to keep everybody, especially the eaters, up-to-date with how much time is left, and how each competitor is doing. As an eater, I am listening for 2 things. I want to know how much time is left, and how I am doing. If I'm in the lead, by how many am I winning? If I am losing, how many does the winner have? Also, it can be really hard for spectators to follow how everybody is doing, especially in a larger contest. The announcer does not have to yell, and he or she doesn't have to try really hard to be funny. To be effective, the announcer just needs to be loud & clear, very informative, and to add a little excitement.

You Need A Judge- The job of the judge is to make sure that all the eaters are following the rules, and is the deciding factor on who the winners are. Most importantly, the judge is in charge of keeping time!! If the judge is active and constantly monitoring all the competitors, 95% of the time the job is really easy. In most contests, it's really easy to tell the winners because you just have to count who ate/drank the most. Every once in a while, there may be a tie, but hopefully there was a rule about having a tie-breaker!! The judge just has to make sure the rules are enforced, and everything will be fine. If the contest involves weighing  the food afterwards to decide the winner, the judge must monitor that process, making sure it runs smoothly. The judge needs to be the one to let the announcer know the winners, along with the official totals & results.

You Need Runners- The runners are the people that relay new trays of food to the competitors. This is a very important role, because eaters always needs food in front of them. Otherwise, their totals & rhythm can get completely messed up. You don't necessarily need a runner for each contestant. You just need enough so that no eater is ever waiting on food. It's pretty easy to figure out how many are needed, and the judge should never be one of the runners. Runners are even more important though if the contest involves weighing the results. Then the runners are responsible for making sure that every eater's trays are kept separate & organized so that the contest results are not miscalculated. Then all hell breaks loose!! Obviously, if you are hosting an eating challenge/contest, you don't need to have runners. All staff can bring the meal trays up.

You May Want Counters- If the event is really large, and there are a bunch of spectators, it may make the contest more fun if you have people counting the totals and displaying them. They do this during the Nathan's 4th of July Hot Dog Contest. Typically most bars & restaurants hire and use sexy models as counters to make the contest more fun & appealing to spectators. Typically, most restaurants don't have enough staff, so they are not used. The announcer just needs to work harder to keep everybody informed.

If you have the right people in place, everything will run smooth. Usually, these jobs are not that difficult, and you just need to pick some of the more competant staff members to help run the event. If you think that you really need help, or if you are a bigger organization looking to hire a company to run your contest, I recommend using All Pro Eating Promotions. Contact them & they will be able to make sure everything runs GREAT, and that you have some GREAT independent competitive eaters at your event...

If you have not already, you can find additional tips to consider by reading my Advice For Restaurants (Food Challenges) section...
 

 

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