How a Hot Dog Eating Contest Became a Marketing Marvel

With its throwback charm, Brooklyn's annual Nathan's Famous event has become synonymous with the Fourth of July

MC George Shea declaring Joey Chestnut the winner of the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest in 2016. Chestnut ate 70 hot dogs (Photo by Eric Kowalsky/Alamy)

This Tuesday at high noon, the eyes of America will turn to Brooklyn for the peculiar yearly event that is synonymous with the Fourth of July. Yes, it’s Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest, held in front of the Coney Island boardwalk restaurant and before the cameras of a national audience on ESPN.

Nathan’s Famous hot dogs have grabbed hold of this holiday in a way that no other brand has ever done. The equivalent would be for Thanksgiving to be celebrated with a turkey-eating contest in front of the Butterball headquarters in Garner, N.C.

The genius of the Nathan’s contest is its throwback quality, evoking the sweaty charm of an American carnival, a slightly seedy version of Disney’s Main Street, U.S.A. If you’ve ever been to Nathan’s at Coney Island, you’d be well aware of the event’s place on the calendar. The restaurant maintains a prominent, yearlong digital-countdown clock to the next contest as part of its Wall of Fame for hot dog eaters.

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Women’s division contestants Miki Sudo and Sonya Thomas at last year’s contest. Sudo was the winner, consuming 38.5 hot dogs (Photo by Eric Kowalsky/Alamy)

It’s a leg on the Major League Eating circuit, with the Nathan’s Fourth of July event serving as its gastronomic Super Bowl and U.S. Open rolled into one. It says something about the venerable hot dog that the best way to promote it is by showing people devouring a year’s worth in one messy sitting. And, oddly enough, the TV ratings it gets proves that on the Fourth, Americans not only enjoy eating, they enjoy watching others eat.

ESPN’s participation–it has the rights to the event until 2024–has given the contest the trappings of a sporting event, complete with color commentary and hot-dog play-by-play by MC George Shea, the PR man who has promoted it to the heights of pop culture it achieves for one summer day. On Twitter, Shea has described this year’s field as “greatest and deepest” ever.

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Nathan Handwerker, owner of Nathan’s, outside his shop at Surf and Stillwell Avenues in Coney Island in 1966 (Photo by Barton Silverman/The New York Times/Redux)

In fact, the event has made stars out of men and women who, in the ten-minute length of the contest, can consume as much as 15 lbs. of meat. The reigning king is Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, who downed 70 hot dogs in last year’s contest (the women’s winner, Miki Sudo–sadly without a nickname–consumed 38.5 hot dogs). According to Nathan’s, Chestnut’s world-record performance translated into 19,600 calories just for the hot dogs and not including the required buns, and end-to-end, 35 ft. of tubesteak insanity.

The battle between Americans and Japanese eaters has been a running theme. Until Chestnut burst onto the scene, Takeru “The Prince” Kobayashi won six years in a row, trouncing his opponents by as many as 24 dogs before Chestnut edged him in 2007. Chestnut, in turn, has held the title every year since 2007, except for 2015, when he lost to Matt “Megatoad” Stonie, in a tight battle, 62 hot dogs to 60 hot dogs. If this is starting to sound more like pro wrestling than eating, you have grasped the concept.

It’s hard to believe anyone would go into competitive eating for any reason other than on a dare. The money–$10,000 for the winner at Nathan’s–is about what professional golfers were making in 1950. In fact, you can make about as much on the professional miniature golf circuit as you can risking your digestive system onstage at Coney Island.

For Nathan’s, the contest is an hour-long TV commercial that “helps reinforce the brand’s authenticity message,” said Stuart Elliott, the longtime New York Times advertising columnist who now writes for the Media Village website. “The fact it seems like it’s from another era of promotion is actually a plus. It’s linked to the Nathan’s heritage and history at Coney Island.” Elliott believes the contest is especially valuable because it happens on one of the slowest news days of the year. That means it gets “a good deal of coverage from TV outlets looking for ‘on-the-lighter-side’ features,” he said.

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The corporate entity, Nathan’s Famous (Nasdaq: NATH), based in Jericho on Long Island, has been working hard to defy the changes in the country’s palate that make it as likely you will find sushi at the ballpark as a mustard-smothered hot dog. Nathan’s revenue dropped for fiscal year 2017 and it is facing new competition on Surf Avenue from Feltman’s of Coney Island, which claims to use the hot-dog recipe employed by Charles Feltman, said to be the inventor of the Coney Island hot dog. (Hot dogs themselves really do trace back to Frankfurt, Germany.)

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The original Nathan’s when it opened in 1916 (Photo courtesy of Nathan’s Famous, Inc.)

Nathan’s contest is alleged to have started on the boardwalk on July 4, 1916, the year the first restaurant opened, although documented evidence is scarce; ESPN was not yet on board at that point. In legend, four men arguing over who was most patriotic decided to settle it in an all-American way: eating hot dogs (the logic of that part seems to have been lost to the pages of history). The winner, a man named James Mullen, ate 13 hot dogs in 12 minutes, a mere light snack for today’s pros.

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Last year’s contest was the 100th anniversary of the event’s launch (Photo by Bruce Cotler/Globe Photos/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News)

Let’s face it, hot dogs have not resisted the trend of moving upscale, although our friends at The New York Times are doing their best to preserve the frank’s egalitarian spirit. It recently rated hot dogs in a run-up to the Fourth of July, and gave “middle of the pack” ratings to two Brooklyn-branded sausages in its taste test: Nathan’s Famous skinless beef franks and The Brooklyn Hot Dog Co.’s smoked and uncured classic beef dogs. Nathan’s was “a mild, juicy frank that ‘melds in a nice way’ with bun and condiments.” The Brooklyn Hot Dog Co. frank got a slightly better review (“smokiest of the bunch, with good beef flavor”), but in a bit of reverse snobbery, the raters criticized it for being, at almost a foot long, too long for a “backyard barbecue hot dog.” Go figure.

For the contest winners, there’s a championship belt (adjustable, of course): the Mustard Belt in the men’s division and the Pink Belt in the women’s. Plus more than a million TV viewers and jam-packed crowds on the streets at Stillwell and Surf avenues to witness their feat. No matter who wins this year, the hot dog eating contest may sound all-American, but it’s really as Brooklyn as it gets.

Former Carroll Gardens resident Dan Callahan is a frequent visitor to Brooklyn, keeping up with his millennial son who in five years has had four different Brooklyn addresses.