Nathan's Famous is an institution in New York, known for the hot-dog-eating contest the company holds each July 4 at the chain's flagship restaurant in Coney Island, NY. The contest has been a local marvel since its introduction in 1916, but in the past decade, national and international coverage has blossomed, thanks largely to the efforts of Nathan's and its PR agency, Shea Communications.
With the company's encouragement, Shea has creatively taken hot-dog eating to a new competitive level, setting up a rivalry with Japan in the early 1990s with the battle for the Mustard Yellow Belt. More recently, the agency established the semi-serious International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), and hosted a series of regional contests.
The challenge of injecting new life into a decades-old event can be a formidable one, but Shea was able to take a clever pitch, and transform it into a prime-time network TV special.
Each spring, Shea brainstorms with Nathan's on new angles for the contest.
"We understand what the hot-dog-eating contest is, and it's not rocket science and it's not the Olympics, so we always dealt with it in a tongue-in-cheek manner,
explains Wayne Norbitz, president of Nathan's.
In 2001, one brainstormed idea ended up being a press release about competitive eaters going "out on the circuit
in order to train and qualify for the upcoming July 4 contest. The idea of a competitive-eating circuit caught the fancy of the Los Angeles Times, which ran the story on the front page last June. "The next day, we received three calls from people who wanted to do something with the IFOCE,
marvels agency cofounder George Shea. One of the calls was from Bruce Nash, the producer of TV specials such as When Good Pets Go Bad, who proposed turning competitive eating into a prime-time event for Fox.
Shea stresses that the growth of competitive eating, including the formation of the IFOCE, has all been driven by PR. "In many ways, this has always been a labor of love for us,
Instead of blast e-mails and faxes, the agency targeted select journalists with individual letters, quickly following up with phone calls. The entire campaign was written and presented with a serious surface. "They were all designed to play on two levels,
explains Shea. "On one hand, people could kind of laugh at them, but they could also be presented in a straight-forward manner. So people who otherwise wouldn't have any fame whatsoever are able to distinguish themselves with eating. And the media loves it."
Through the IFOCE, Shea Communications cofounder Richard Shea became involved in the TV program, serving as co-producer and commentator for what became known as The Glutton Bowl.
The Glutton Bowl: The World's Greatest Eating Competition aired February 21 on Fox as counter-programming to NBC's Olympic women's figure skating.
The two-hour event featured 34 competitors from around the world to see who could eat the most beef tongue, eggs, butter, mayonnaise, hamburgers and, of course, hot dogs in a set period of time for a first prize of $25,000. Nathan's was the only brand featured in the contest. In addition, two documentaries on competitive eating - one from The Food Network and another on The Discovery Channel - aired in early 2002, and at least three screenwriters are presently looking to bring the story of competitive eating to a theater near you.
Even before the first Glutton Bowl aired, there was already talk of a Glutton Bowl 2 in 2003. In addition to the annual hot-dog-eating contest that continues to be held in Coney Island each July 4, Shea reports that groups in the UK, Germany, Thailand, and other nations have inquired about getting IFOCE sponsorship for events in those countries in the coming year. And other food products, including burritos, buffalo wings, and snack cakes, are now clamoring to be part of IFOCE events going forward.