When Shawn Danko opened Kooky Canuck, he wanted to include a food challenge to add to the fun nature of the restaurant. He created the Kookamonga Burger, which is four pounds of fresh ground chuck, two pounds of custom-made hamburger bun, and one-and-a-half pounds of lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, and cheese. (Accompanying fries are optional.) Eat the burger in less than 60 minutes, and it's yours for free.
Anyone who has laid eyes on the burger can see that finishing it is nearly impossible, but that hasn't stopped 2,895 people from taking the challenge. To date, only eight people have succeeded. One of them, Roger Robinson, who lives in Southaven, has won three times. Patrick Bertoletti, a professional competitive eater, holds the record for fastest time (7 minutes and 15 seconds).
Jason Smith, a 21-year-old sport and leisure management major at the University of Memphis, completed the contest a couple of years ago. The 5'10", 225-pound Brownsville, Tennessee, native says he's always been able to eat a lot. "Some guys I hang out with told me about the challenge since I'm not from here," he says. Sixteen of those guys watched in awe as he ate the entire burger.
"It was real difficult. I had to sit and let things digest for 15 minutes, then all I wanted to do was nap," Smith says. He didn't eat anything the next day and hasn't done any other official challenges since, but he says he'll still take on anyone who thinks they can out-eat him.
The Kookamonga contest has succeeded in bringing people to the restaurant in droves, and it keeps them talking long after their visits. Due to the contest's difficulty, it also has attracted a few professional eaters and landed the restaurant a slot on Food Network's popular Man vs. Food.
The Kooky Canuck added the King Kookamonga contest almost two years ago "just for the heck of it" and to add another dimension to the challenge scenario. The King is a super-sized version of the original, weighing in at 12 pounds. Two people can team up to tackle the King Kookamonga. So far, out of 165 attempts, only a couple of brothers from Texas have defeated the King.
Danko says the size of a person is not a good gauge of potential success. "It's all about the size of the stomach and a person's ability to chew for long periods of time," he says. The majority of attempts have come from men, and the few women who have tried have all failed. "To be able to eat a lot is considered a good thing in the guy's handbook," Danko says. "There are some girls who can put some food back, but they don't necessarily or willingly wear that on their sleeve."
Terry Bomar, owner of the Pizza Shack and creator of the Shack Attack pizza challenge, agrees that eating contests appeal to men, specifically the male ego. "It's not like these guys come in alone," he says. "There's always a group to cheer them on."
The Pizza Shack, which celebrated its two-year anniversary on March 1st, has also seen how a food challenge can benefit business. There have been 80 "Shack Attack" attempts but only seven winners. The Shack Attack is a 16-inch pizza piled high with pepperoni, ham, sausage, bacon, shredded steak, pulled pork, red onion, and barbecue sauce. It weighs five-and-a-half pounds, and contestants have one hour to eat it.
Bomar says it took over a year for someone to win, and it's been great for business.
"We gave away seven pizzas to our winners but sold the other 73," he says, adding that people are not broken up when they lose because the pizza is so tasty. Winners not only get a free pizza, they get a $20 gift certificate and their picture on the wall by the register and on Facebook. The current record for the challenge is 26 minutes. (No professional eaters have taken the challenge.)
Buoyed by the success of the Shack Attack, Bomar recently added the Enfuego challenge, which is more mental and has a higher success rate. (So far, four out of 28 have prevailed.) The Enfuego is a 12-inch pizza made with a mix of chili peppers, including ghost chilis — the third hottest in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Bomar orders the peppers dehydrated and makes the sauce himself. He says that according to the Scoville scale, which is used to measure the spiciness of peppers, his pizza has anywhere from 6 to 7 million units. (By comparison, a typical jalapeno has 1,000 to 5,000 units.) The Enfuego is a half-hour challenge, and contestants can have all the water they want and one emergency four-ounce shot of milk.
A couple of downtown eateries — Bar None and Ferraro's Pizzeria and Pub — are hoping that adding a food challenge to their menus will be good for business too.
In the six weeks that it's been open, Bar None has had 30 people try the Big Burger and Half-Yard Challenge. "It may not be the biggest challenge burger, but it is the best," says Andrea Bragg, the restaurant's spokesperson. It includes a one-pound burger of in-house ground tenderloin beef on a custom-made bun with all the trimmings (homemade pickled onions, homemade Dijon mayo, farmhouse cheddar, lettuce, tomatoes, etc.). Also included in the challenge are a pound of hand-cut fries and a half-yard of ale (two pints). The winner gets his (no women have stepped up to the plate!) photo on Facebook, a Bar None T-shirt, and a photo on the wall. The food is also comp'ed, but not the beer, due to state regulations. So far, three people have successfully completed the challenge, which has no time limit.
Ferraro's Pizzeria and Pub in the Pinch District recently introduced the "U Can't Do It" 28-inch pizza challenge. Eat one pizza with your choice of toppings in an hour, and you'll get your picture on the wall, a hat, and a T-shirt. At press time, no one has managed to win yet, so you could be the first.