Man Conquers Food

Quaker Steak & Lube's atomic wing challenges use sauce that rivals the spiciness of a habeñero pepper.
Quaker Steak & Lube's atomic wing challenges use sauce that rivals the spiciness of a habeñero pepper. Quaker steak & Lube

Batter Up Pancakes in Fresno, California, holds a Grand Slam Challenge in which guests must scarf down a 10-egg scramble with one cup each of four items, including select meats and vegetables, plus two cups of country potatoes, and one cup of Cheddar and Jack cheese, all piled on top of a 25-ounce, old-fashioned buttermilk pancake. In 45 minutes. Without leaving their seats.

“When you have a challenge like this, it creates excitement, and people will talk about us even when not at the restaurant,” says Jeff Colla, president of the restaurant. “Everyone in the area knows us for our eating contest.”

Since 2009, the restaurant has had 264 guests attempt the challenge but only seven have triumphed. All winners are prominently displayed on the restaurant’s Facebook page, which Colla says builds interest in the establishment.

Restaurants have offered eating challenges for years, drumming up their biggest, baddest, most spicy dishes as a dare for eaters wanting to investigate the limits of their taste buds and stomach real estate. While some challenges flew under the radar, the genre of devouring giant dishes has come back in vogue, thanks to Travel Channel’s Man v. Food, in which Adam Richman travels the country and consumes fiery or gargantuan dishes at mom and pop shops.

Restaurants that offer such competitions find they gain a cool reputation in their local community and, often, a steady stream of onlookers who like to watch—or grimace—as adventurous diners put their taste buds to the test.

“There is a lot of excitement when we bring out the contest,” says Colla, who conceived the idea after watching Man v. Food five years ago. “Customers always want to take photos and chat with the challenger.”

Other examples of challenges include a 5-pound burrito stuffed with beans and seasoned beef topped with guacamole, sour cream, and pico de gallo, courtesy of the Sandbar Sports Grill in Cocoa Beach, Florida, or the spicy Insanity Wings at East Coast Wings & Grill.

Megan Duniec, senior director of marketing at Quaker Steak & Lube, says the Lube’s Atomic Wing Challenge and Triple Atomic Wing Challenge add excitement to the guest experience and also drive traffic.

“When someone visits with the intention of taking on our challenge, they usually bring friends and family to cheer them on,” she says. “There is also the word-of-mouth attention. Guests will travel far to try our hottest sauces.”

And for customers, bragging rights are a huge draw. In July, Eugene Vaillancourt Jr. became the first to conquer the Paul Bunyan Burger Challenge, which debuted earlier this year at the Celebrity Bar & Grill in Bangor, Maine. While 22 contenders before him failed, Vaillancourt downed a 2-pound burger, a pound of fries, and all the fixin’s in under an hour.

“It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure, but I wanted to be the first,” Vaillancourt says. To commemorate his feat, Celebrity Bar & Grill gave Vaillancourt a T-shirt, displays his photo in the restaurant, and comped his $32.99 meal.

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