Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest 2016: How A Publicity Stunt Sparked A July 4 Tradition

Thousands of spectators are expected to descend upon the Coney Island boardwalk on Monday for Nathan’s 2016 Hot Dog Eating Contest. The annual event has become a Fourth of July staple at the location since 1972. To date, more than 425 million Nathan’s hot dogs have been sold in all 50 states and 40,000 food service and retail outlets. The contest pits around 20 eaters against each other in a race to chow down the most hot dogs in 12 minutes.

According to legend, the tradition began in 1916, the same year Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker opened a hot dog stand. The contest started when an Irish immigrant named Jim Mullen approached Nathan’s newly opened stand and challenged several bystanders to an eating contest to prove just how American he was, notes The Independent. However, in 2010, promoter Mortimer Matz admitted that he and Max Rosey fabricated this legend in the early 1970s as part of a publicity stunt to generate buzz for Nathan’s, which had just become a publicly traded company, The New York Post reports.

“Our objective was to take a photograph and get it in the New York newspaper,” acknowledges Wayne Norbitz, who served as president of Nathan’s for 26 years and still sits on the board of directors. He said that the early events hardly attracted the public.

We’d honestly wait for a couple of fat guys to walk by and ask them if they wanted to be in a hot dog contest.

The winner of the inaugural 1972 contest downed 14 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. The current record holder is Joey Chestnut with 69 hotdogs at the 2013 event. Chestnut won every year from 2007-2014, and his streak was broken last year by Matt Stonie. Takeru Kobayashi had a six-year run before Chestnut’s reign.

According to Thrillist, Kobayashi was arrested in 2010 for trying to jump the fence at the contest. The charges were eventually dismissed, but his name and photo were removed from the Wall of Fame in 2011. His actions were ignited by his refusal to sign an exclusive contract with Major League Eating, as doing so would have prevented him from competing elsewhere. He told CNN that he made his livelihood through competitive eating.

In 2011, Nathan’s also created a separate hot dog eating contest for women, and Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas was the first ever champion, with 40 dogs chowed down in 10 minutes in 2012 (see video below). Major League Eating announced that this year’s monetary prize totals $40,000. The prevailing female and male will receive $20,000 each.

“The origin is that it’s a joke about what went into the meat itself and the running joke that once a butcher set up shop, all cats and dogs in the neighborhood disappeared,” he says.

“Somebody, we’re not sure who, coined the term ‘hot dog’ because there were lots of cartoons from this period about dogs going into sausage machines, and that song ‘Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?’ But you’ll see ‘red hot’ and ‘hot dog’ kind of merge together in this period.”

The eating competition is not generally open for all, and every participant must meet certain requirements and qualifications. Click here for some names of the competitive eaters for this year’s contest.

“Americans have always eaten fast, always on the run,” says Kraig. “Already in a casing, already cooked, the hot dog is the first really-fast food.”

Some of the rules for Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest include: the use of condiments, a time limit of 10-minutes, a penalty for “messy eating,” disqualification for regurgitation. Ties are decided with a hot-dog eat-off.

Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest kicks off live July 4 at 10:50 a.m. local time on ESPN3 with the women’s contest. The men’s contest begins at midday. The event will also be shown on ESPN at 3 p.m. Eastern and will be available to watch online. Last year’s broadcast drew nine million viewers. Every year, Nathan’s donates 100,000 hot dogs to the Food Bank for New York City, a hunger relief charity.