Eating challenges: Do they make financial sense?

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Restaurant's Stefan Chomka (l) and Joe Lutrario (r) attempt Red Dog Saloon's The Devastator Challenge
Restaurant's Stefan Chomka (l) and Joe Lutrario (r) attempt Red Dog Saloon's The Devastator Challenge

Related tags: Red dog saloon, Restaurant

Eating challenges are big business for many restaurants but do they make financial sense and what place do they have within an industry that’s increasingly trying to avoid excess and waste? Restaurant's Joe Lutrario finds out. 

Panic is setting in. Ladish optimism has given way to more grown-up concerns as we silently contemplate the ways one can disgrace themselves while participating in an eating challenge and how much fun the local newspaper is going to have with its headline if we expire mid chomp.

After three minutes of our 10 minute time limit has ticked by we decide that this eight inch-high monster of a burger is a tall order, and a few minutes later we realise that all hope is lost: we’re not even going to come close to beating Red Dog Saloon’s Devastator burger, not to mention the plus-sized milkshake and fries that flank it.

Punters have never been keener to put their money where their mouth is, it seems. Eating challenges are big business for many restaurants. Around 60 people attempt The Devastator Challenge across Red Dog Saloon’s two London restaurants each week and this 3,000 calorie bruiser has a suitably-hefty price tag of £27.50.

The US-made TV programme Man v. Food – which has been endlessly repeated in the UK – can take much of the credit for bringing this greasy portion of US food culture to the UK masses.

Popularity

Eating challenges can no longer be considered niche and a number of larger restaurant and pub entities are now getting in on the action. Not least managed pub giant Spirit, which runs a number of challenges across its brands including Flaming Grill’s Trashcan Challenge, featuring a large rack of ribs, a burger, chilli sundae, chicken skewer, onion rings and a somewhat tokenistic serving of baked beans all presented on a full-size dustbin lid.

But is it all getting a bit out of hand? Earlier this year The Corner Café in Portishead, near Bristol, launched what it claimed to be Britain’s biggest ever breakfast containing 8,000 calories. Challengers have one hour to complete the £15 meal and – unsurprisingly – nobody has come close to clearing their plate within the time allotted or, indeed, finished the 59-item meal at all.

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Red Dog Saloon’s challenge is tough – just 6 per cent of hopefuls manage to complete it – but the problem is the time limit rather than the total volume of food: we both pretty much finish our meals, it just takes us twice the time allotted. And it must be said that this is a truly excellent burger, although its meaty allure does start to dwindle as the challenge progresses.

Three 6oz beef patties carefully cooked to a blushing pink, a handful of pulled pork, six rashes of thick-cut bacon, six slices of American cheese, barbecue sauce, lettuce, tomato and a few pickles. The thought of undertaking something similar but made with poor quality ingredients – let’s face it, a lot of restaurants serve total rubbish to keep food costs in check – makes us shudder.

Eating challenges are a US export through and through and the spike of popularity they are currently enjoying in the UK can be directly attributed to our seemingly insatiable appetite for American food. But as Red Dog Saloon founder Tom Brooke explains, the model in the US is rather different.

“In the States eating challenges are designed to be very difficult to complete because those that triumph don’t have to pay for it. In the UK, challenges tend to be a bit easier but those that succeed still have to pay.” Diners who complete The Devastator Challenge receive a T-shirt and – if they’re quick enough – their name on the restaurant’s wall of fame. The fastest ever time for the challenge is three and a half minutes, set by an American competitive eating champion. Apparently he didn’t chew much.

“As our obesity rate attests, excessive eating is an ingrained part of our culture,” says Bea Vo, the Virginia-born restaurateur behind Soho’s Stax Diner. “Every town has a pie-eating contest and kids in high school will do silly challenges in the canteen until milkshake starts coming out of their noses. It’s just a normal thing for Americans and a natural fit for Stax.”

Vo launched Stax Diner’s eating challenge at the beginning of the year. It’s a similar spread to Red Dog Saloon: a huge burger made with five beef patties, family-size fries and a double milkshake. Arranged as a year-long tournament, it’s rather more involved than most other challenges. Each month the fastest finisher is declared the winner and at the end of the year the 12 finalists will go head to head to win a £500 Stax Diner gift voucher.

“The burger isn’t too bad, the milkshake is the killer. People usually leave it until last – every sip is like torture. I enjoy watching the light go out in the eyes of some of our more macho contestants when they realise they can’t go any further,” says Vo. In common with most other quality restaurants, Stax Diner makes some money on the food it sells for eating challenges but does take a slight hit on the margin. 

Responsible retailing?

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We waddle from Red Dog Saloon largely unscathed. We wouldn’t have been the first journalists to come unstuck while getting a bit Gonzo with an eating challenge. Last year, two reporters from Brighton newspaper The Argus were hospitalised after sampling a chilli burger made with a sauce that’s claimed to be more potent than a policeman’s pepper spray from Hove burger joint Burger Off.

Red Dog Saloon’s Hot Wings Challenge is one of the UK’s most notorious heat-based challenges. Contestants must consume six chicken wings slathered in its homemade hot sauce, which is packed with Naga Viper peppers, within 10 minutes and then endure a further five minutes of ‘burn time’ before leaving the table or having a drink.

While chillies aren’t toxic, the shock of ingesting large quantities can have serious consequences, particularly for those with underlying health conditions. As such, nearly all restaurants that offer a heat-based eating task will ask the participant to sign a waiver absolving the venue of all liability for what may occur during or after the challenge. Vo at Stax diner asks those that attempt her challenge to sign a waiver too after one of her staff experienced heart palpitations half way through the meal.

With allergies and customer wellbeing in general very much at the forefront, all this begs the question: can challenges that require people to eat so much food they throw up or consume so much chilli they experience excruciating pain be considered responsible?

“In this day and age people should be responsible for their own actions. It’s the customer’s responsibility to know their own limits,” is Brooke’s matter-of-fact reply. But isn’t he encouraging reckless behaviour by offering the challenge in the first place? “I don’t see it like that. These people are grown-ups. When people do the Hot Wings Challenge and it all gets a bit much – they’re still smiling,” says

Brooke, who did apparently incur the wrath of his mother for making his little brother and business partner Will a guinea pig when developing the Hot Wings Challenge. 

“We have had a few people go to hospital,” he later admits. “But they just panicked. Chillies don’t do long term damage – there wasn’t really anything wrong with them. One guy had put away a lot of booze and I think the chilli pushed him over the edge. His blood pressure was dropping so the paramedics decided to take him in. But that’s just a couple of people out of thousands of challengers.”

Wastage problems

Then there’s the issue of what’s left when the challenger throws in the towel. Clearly restaurants are in the business of consumption and some plate waste is inevitable but, arguably, the more extreme volume-based eating challenges – including the Corner Cafe’s aforementioned 8,000 calorie breakfast – are inherently extremely wasteful.

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At Red Dog Saloon we both finish the vast majority of meals each leaving no more than 10 per cent on the plate. Brooke says this is typical and that it’s rare for a significant amount of the food to be left on the plate, as people continue to eat beyond the finishing line.

At Stax Diner, Vo says the plate waste associated with her challenge is comparable to a regular meal. “We designed the challenge to be doable – it’s not like some of the stuff you see on Man v. Food. I could do it with a bit of practice. Only 10 per cent of people might finish it, but in nearly all cases the plate waste is quite low. People know they’re paying for it and make a sincere effort to finish it,” she says. “I sell US comfort food and people do come in with eyes that are bigger than their stomachs so there’s always going to be some food waste.”

Give it away

Casual dining chain MeatLiquor is one of the few UK businesses to give away a meal if the challenger is successful. The Triple Chilli Challenge comprises a chilli burger, chilli dog and chilli fries. It’s spicy but it’s not a chilli-heat challenge, like Red Dog Saloon’s. The problem is eating it within a 10 minute window.

The cost of The Triple Chilli Challenge is £24, the total menu price of the three dishes.

MeatLiquor only takes a hit if the diner beats the clock, but with a comparatively high success rate of 30 per cent the restaurant has to give away quite a lot of its food. Interestingly, MeatLiquor co-founder Yianni Papoutsis notes that male challenges outnumber females 10 to one but that females that enter the challenge are far more likely to succeed.

So with most restaurants selling food at a reduced margin and sometimes even at a loss, why do they do it? For starters it’s the spectacle it creates. The MeatLiquor Triple Chilli Challenge is quite something to watch: a member of staff stands next to the competitor (or often competitors) armed with a stopwatch and a megaphone and commentates throughout. People tend to stand around and watch and there is much whooping and hollering, chiming nicely with MeatLiquor’s boozy, hedonistic vibe.

The focal point that an eating challenge creates is also the key motivator for Tom Brooke. “We run lively venues with a party atmosphere. People love to spectate and crowd round the competitor’s table to cheer them on. It makes for a memorable night out,” he says.

Then there’s the PR and marketing aspect. The six-strong Mission Burrito group runs a Lucha Libre Man v. Burrito challenge. There are two variants to make the challenge more accessible, a double burrito (£10) and a triple burrito (£15) weighing in at around 2kg.

Founder Jan Rasmussen says the Man v. Burrito started as a one off promotion to fill restaurants on Valentine’s Day, but the huge traction it gets on social media has seen it become a permanent fixture.

“Each restaurant does 12 a week on average so it’s not that big a bit of the business but nearly everyone posts on social media. The burrito is very long – we had to source special 90cm trays from the US – so it has a lot of photographic impact. Facebook and Twitter are the core channels but we’ve had people doing Vine videos of the challenge from beginning to end,” says Rasmussen.

Eating challenges would also appear to be catnip to some national newspapers, not least The Daily Mail which runs dozens of stories a year on them. Its website is the most viewed news source online so the PR value of appearing on it is not to be scoffed at.

For many businesses that sort of exposure is worth the price of a free T-shirt and the odd unscheduled deep clean of the toilet cubicle. 

“There have been a couple of people puking,” concedes Papoutsis. “But we won’t be naming and shaming. What happens in MeatLiquor stays in MeatLiquor.

Related topics: Business, Venues, Restaurants, Pubs & Bars

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