Sometimes, a regular-size meal just won't do. Especially when you're hungry for glory.
Chattanooga is home to several eating challenges for those looking to fill up on a free mega-meal and some culinary acclaim — that is, if they can put their money where their mouth is, so to speak. Competitive-eating database FeatEats lists more than 30 eating challenges in the Greater Chattanooga area, though many are tied to festivals and other special events.
When I started calling the restaurants listed, most had closed. But don't go swallowing your pride just yet. Whether you're looking to test your stamina, your gut or your courage, there's still a challenge for you.
Meat and Sweets
The start of the year means the kickoff of challenge season at Chattanooga's Jack Brown's Burgers. The Virginia-based eatery offers two eating challenges at its 14 locations across the Southeast, and this is the time of year when customers usually come in chomping at the bit, says local front-of-house manager Justin Grasham.
If you can out-eat the reigning champ in 1/4-pound burgers or deep-fried Double Stuf Oreos, you get your photo on the wall and social media for all to see, aka "the Hall of Immortals," as Grasham calls it; you get a T-shirt; and you don't have to pay for the food that you ate — which can be a lot.
Chattanooga's all-time title holders are Avery West at 14 burgers and Corey Duvall at 30 Oreos, though the streaks reset at the start of each year.
"You could be king for a day or king for a year," says Grasham. "Once the numbers start getting bigger, it starts getting a little intimidating."
The loose structure of the challenge means contenders — who are almost always men, he admits — are also competing against themselves. While the number to beat is on the wall, they have the flexibility to do it on their own terms, so long as they complete a full burger or Oreo beyond that number without leaving the restaurant or going to the restroom.
"Many have tried and many have failed," Grasham says, sharing stories of guests coming within one or two of the record, including one table of office workers who decided to take on both the burger and Oreo challenge on their lunch break.
No one has literally lost their cookies mid-challenge, but that's not to say it hasn't pushed them beyond the brink, he adds with a knowing smile.
Of the two dozen people who have tried to best New York Pizza Department's 9-pound-pizza challenge over the past eight years, only two have succeeded — and both were professional eaters.
"I did it as a joke when I first opened," owner Erik Cilen says of the challenge. "When it started, you had to finish it off in an hour. Then all the professionals started coming in and I decided, 'We've got to lower [the time limit].'"
The 45-minute challenge has become known on the professional-eating circuit, most likely because of its place on the EatFeats website.
"This one guy calls me at least once a month. He wants me to pay him $2,000 to come out here and eat this pizza," says Cilen.
The record holder, Brandon "Da Garbage Disposal" Clark, got it all down in 31 minutes and 39 seconds — after having completed a 3-pound-burger challenge en route. But he didn't keep the pizza down.
"He asked if he could use the restroom," Cilen says with a chuckle. "I was like, 'Dude, I'm just impressed you could fit all that in your mouth.'"
Keeping it down could potentially be damaging to your health. There's at least 2 pounds of cheese, and the 20-inch pizza is roughly 2.5 times bigger (234 square inches larger, to be exact) than a typical large pizza, says Cilen.
There's more than glory and a free meal if you can eat it all. In addition to waiving the pizza's typical $32 purchase price, success nets you $50 cash.
Most people come within two or three slices of finishing the gargantuan pie, or are left with a pile of crust.
"It's always these big dudes who come in here like, 'I'm gonna do it!'" Cilen says. "But it's always the little guys that succeed."
Hot, hot, HOT wings
If your tastes lean more toward the spicy side of life, there is not one, but two places in Chattanooga that offer hot-wing challenges: Buffalo Wild Wings and The Flaming Rooster.
The wings are the spiciest option available at each restaurant, and the rules are nearly the same: no dipping sauces, no sides, no drinks and no napkins, though The Flaming Rooster challenges you to get down six dry-rub wings in five minutes, while at B-Dubs you must eat 12 wet wings in six minutes.
Buffalo Wild Wings makes contenders sign a waiver beforehand. The Flaming Rooster manager Rai Orr warns the foolhardy that "the hospital is right through the tunnel."
The Flaming Rooster's 3-year-old "flamous" wall of winners holds 83 photos. Market Street Buffalo Wild Wings general manager Brandy Whisler says 30-50% of his restaurant's "Blazin' Wing" challengers succeed.
Still, this kind of challenge, which is more about fortitude than stomach capacity, seems to have a more level playing field. Last month, a 9-year-old took on the B-Dubs challenge and won.
"Usually after about two wings I can tell if they're going to finish it," says Whisler, who has been with the national chain for 15 years. "If you slow down and start taking deep breaths, you're done for. It's best if you just go as fast as you can."
He should know. He's completed the challenge several times. His personal best is 2 minutes, 36 seconds — a full 2 minutes slower than the fastest he's ever witnessed, which was in Memphis.
The Flaming Rooster owner Ed Wickley has no desire to sit on the throne reserved for winners at his restaurant. "I resist the challenge, I don't take it," he says with a chuckle.
Buffalo Wild Wings' Blazin' Sauce, in which the challenge's wings are slathered, weighs in at 300,000 Scoville units, roughly 60 times the heat of a jalapeno. Orr isn't sure how hot their own tear-inducing "Oh Hale Naw!" spice agent is, but it's wrecked people for up to a week after, she says. One guy even called to request frozen Charmin.
Whisler probably sums it up best: "It starts out hot and ends hot."
Claim to fame
The city of Chattanooga actually carries some clout when it comes to eating challenges. From 2004 to 2009, it was the site of the official World Hamburger Eating Championship, the Krystal Square Off. While the 8-minute contest is no longer, one of the names to come from it is: Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobayashi. He clinched the record in all but 2007 and 2008. However, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, who won both of those years, holds the all-time record for consuming 103 of the small, square burgers.