In this, the month in which our nation celebrates its independence, it is difficult to think of any custom more uniquely American than that of a “food challenge.”
A food-challenge, for the uninitiated, is an event in which a restaurant offers its customers an opportunity to prove to their friends, family and themselves, that their appetite knows no bounds, typically by eating a dish large enough to feed an entire family, within a set amount of time. Besides bragging rights, the restaurant will often sweeten the deal with a cash prize, or at the very least, a free lunch. Though, winners and losers alike may spend the next few days paying for their adventurous dining experience, one way or the other.
In Fayetteville, the tradition is alive and well. Locals looking for an evening of foodie fun have enough options available to them to try a food challenge every night of the week… though it is unlikely they would survive past Wednesday.
We tagged along with a few local competitive eaters to document their attempt at gluttonous glory.
Brooklyn Pizzeria’s, The Brooklynator
THE CHALLENGE: Two people must finish a 30-inch pizza, within 60 minutes, with no bathroom breaks. The pizza must contain three different toppings, with two of the toppings being meats of the customer’s choosing.
The Prize: $100, a refund of the $50 deposit and your picture on the wall.
After 26 years of business, owner Pete Reneo said he and his partner Matthew Cecil have seen everything. That is, everything except for a pair of Fayetteville customers who can meet their restaurant's Brooklynator Pizza Challenge.
“We have seen a lot of crazy things,” Reneo said. “But when we get a winner in Fayetteville, we will take his picture, get an 8x10 and put that up on the wall.” Now, that isn’t to say that the pizza has never been conquered. Before opening a location in Fayetteville, the Brooklyn-born Reneo had previously held his challenge at a former Durham location, where two pairs of competitors had managed to down the massive 12-pound pie. Currently, The Brooklynator is only available at the restaurant’s 4411 Ramsey Street location in Fayetteville.
So far, Reneo said, there have been 532 failed attempts. “Really, there are two people per challenge, so if you think about it, the challenge has been lost by 1,064 people.” He continued, “But they always come in, so convinced that they can do it.”
As Reneo predicted, our challengers Topher McLean and Derek Smith arrived feeling a false sense of superiority over all those who had come before them. “This will be easy,” McLean said. “I eat two large Domino's pizzas by myself all of the time.” For Smith, taking on The Brooklynator is more than a matter of pride, but something that will allow him to mark off an accomplishment on his unofficial bucket list. “My friends may laugh, but doing one of these food challenges is actually a life goal of mine,” Smith said. “I mean, just to say I tried it. This is going to be awesome.” Both McLean and Smith had very loose strategies in mind. While Smith focused on keeping hydrated, McLean felt that victory would rely on their choice of toppings. “We went with bacon, Canadian bacon and pineapple,” McLean said. “The bacon will probably be less greasy than pepperoni, we are both fans of pineapple and you want to make sure to get ingredients that you can’t imagine yourself ever getting tired of.” Once the pizza was brought out, there was an audible hush as other customers stopped what they were doing to watch.
“Funny thing about the challenge is, no matter when we do it, suddenly 20 people will show up out of no where to watch,” Reneo said. It isn’t every day that customers get to see someone down a pizza slice roughly the size of their head. The duo started off strong, finishing their first few slices with relative ease. At the 20-minute mark however, there was a noticeable slow down, as both Smith and McLean began to shift their strategies. McLean, decided to put his crusts aside, to be eaten separately once the pizza was near completion, while Smith made what Reneo had described as a rookie mistake. He stood up to stretch.
With seven minutes left, both Smith and McLean throw in the towel… with only three slices left. Ironically, McLean blames the pineapple. “Pineapple tastes great, which is why I thought it was the perfect choice, but I forgot that the pizza eventually cools off, and then you have this wet, cold pineapple on every slice,” McLean said. “I have lived in New York and honestly, this is the best pizza I’ve ever had, but if I had to eat another slice at this point, I would probably be sick for the rest of the week.” For Smith, win or lose, he still felt he had accomplished something. “I’d do it again, honestly,” Smith said. “Either way I got a great meal out of it.”
Mac's Speed Shop, “FatBoy” Challenge
THE CHALLENGE: One customer, must consume Mac’s “Fat Boy” sandwich, which consists of an 18 inch, 20 ounce Foccacia loaf, topped with ½ pound of Pimento Cheese, one pound of Pulled Pork, ½ pounds of sliced brisket, one pound of sausage patties and ½ pound of smoked bacon.
On top of that, there is eight ounces of queso dip, six ounces of burnout sauce, six ounces of cole slaw, fried pickles and onion rings. As if that weren’t enough, the competitor must also finish ½ pound of mac ‘n’ cheese and one liter of beer or soda. All of this must be eaten in 60 minutes or less, with no bathroom breaks. The Prize: A refund of the $45 down payment, your name and photo on Mac’s Pig Eating Hall of Fame wall and a Mac’s t-shirt and a cap.
In the 10 years since the first Mac’s Speed Shop opened its doors, bar manager Mosheh Sampson estimates that hundreds of customers have attempted the challenge, 80 of which did so at the Fayetteville location. So far, only five of those brave men had their names immortalized on the wall of fame. Those with mere-mortal appetites still have their chance at immortality, but in a far less flattering context. “If you don’t get it, you still get on the wall of shame, which is by the bathroom,” said Nick Hart, general manager. “So succeed or fail, you’ll get on our wall.”
This was news to that day’s challenger, James Wyatt, who had only decided to participate in the challenge on a lark. “There’s a wall of shame?” Wyatt asked. “I’m going to be on the wall of shame if I lose this thing? Well great. I’m determined not to end up on that wall.”
Wyatt’s odds may be better than most, given his military background. According to Sampson, out of the five all-time winners of the challenge, two of them are from Fayetteville.
“Just, by nature, this town is full of very driven people and I think that helps with challenges like this,” Sampson said. “Just the personality of your average person here is very mission oriented.“
While Wyatt, a soldier and fitness enthusiast, may seem like the kind of guy who would fit Sampson’s description, he admitted to not having much of a strategy in mind when entering into this particular mission.
“I haven’t practiced for this at all. I am just going to try to scarf it all down,” Wyatt said. “I am just feeling froggy, you know? I haven’t eaten anything today.”
Wyatt described himself as being “very humble but very hungry,” and ranked his probability of success at a seven, out of a possible 10. As if to keep his humility in check, Wyatt invited along friend Casey Landru, who spent much of the hour playfully trash talking Wyatt from an adjacent table.
“I don’t know. He’s kind of small. Looks like he hasn’t been lifting too much weight lately,” Landru teased.
Wyatt gets through the top layers of the sandwich without much slowdown, however when he arrives at the bottom layer of bread, he begins to tug a tin bucket provided by the Mac’s staff, closer to his seat.
“The bread is the hardest, that’s what people say,” Sampson said. “Everyone has their own way. They’re not allowed to dip the bread in their beverage. Usually around the 20 or 30-minute mark people hit the wall. If you can get the majority of it done in the first 20 minutes you’ll be pretty good. We have a few people who get sick, but most people stop before then. We did have one guy who tried to energize himself halfway through. He tried to do 20 push-ups, which got him sick. I don’t recommend that.”
Apparently, Wyatt didn’t need calisthenics to get him sick. At 47 minutes, Wyatt chose to throw in the towel. “I have never been this full in my life. I have never eaten that much in my life,” Wyatt said, punctuating his sentence with a combination of a burp and a cough. “I have never quit anything before, but I could not eat another bite of that. I wish I could have finished it, but I didn’t want to push it to that level where I knew I was going to throw up. Right now, I’m at that brink.”
The Grilled Ginger’s Pho Challenge
THE CHALLENGE: Customer must finish a huge bowl of pho soup, which includes one and a half pounds of noodles, one pound of meats and one pound of fresh vegetables, in 60 minutes. No bathroom breaks.
PRIZE: You get the $45 pho free of charge, your picture on the wall, a $45 Grilled Ginger gift certificate and a t-shirt which reads “I (heart) Grilled Ginger. The Winner!”
Han Nguyen and Thanh Vo, who own The Grilled Ginger on Yadkin Road, didn’t see too many food challenges during the five years they ran a restaurant in their native Vietnam, but upon taking their business to California they saw restaurants of all varieties offering their customers a chance to test their will. This inspired them to bring the Pho Challenge to Fayetteville.
“In Vietnam customers consume less than in the United States,” said Vo. “The pho is a very popular main course from Vietnam and we have a lot of customers who come here and enjoy it.”
Initially, Vo said, the dish was a little too challenging and the owners were worried that too few people would be able to complete it, so they cut down the amount of noodles and vegetables. Vo said that they hope to one day be able to contact all the previous winners of the challenge and have them head off against one another. With only two winners out of the 15 attempts they’ve had so far, Vo says they are a long way from having enough for a tournament.
Challenger Kirk Blue was pretty certain he was to be the third person on that winner’s list. Blue, who is a self-professed Vietnamese food fanatic, knew for sure he would be walking away sporting the winning t-shirt.
“I love any kind of Asian food, so this is perfect for me,” Blue said. “I haven’t had the pho here in Fayetteville yet, I’ve had it elsewhere. I attempted to do a pizza challenge once before, but I didn’t finish it, but don’t think I won’t be able to do this today though. I’ve come hungry.”
To prepare, Blue made sure not to eat anything else the day of the competition.
“There are two theories. You starve yourself the day before, so you’ll be hungry the day of, but I also heard that you should eat the day before so that your stomach is expanded,” Blue said. “So I ate yesterday, but nothing today.”
Before cooking the pho, Vo and his wife came to Blue’s table, with the pho’s ingredients and a scale, to show him the exact weight of the food he was about to ingest. Blue appears unphased.
Despite his own pre-challenge boasts, Blue folded almost immediately, declaring himself a loser only 17 minutes in. Still, Blue continued to fight the good fight, slowly pecking away at his pho, until finally making his loss official, with only 19 minutes left on the clock.
“I got grilled by the ginger,” Blue said. “It was real hot and tasty in the beginning, but then, not even halfway through, it started to taste like a wet noodle. If I can’t finish, I’d rather not spend the rest of the week feeling miserable, so I may as well quit now. My bubble got burst. I have never given up anything.”
On the plus side, Blue learned that even quitters receive a t-shirt, only one that reads “I tried.”
“I’ll still wear this out,” Blue said. “I’ll be a proud loser.”
Looking down at his bowl, which was still more than halfway full of noodles, Blue could not help but muse to himself, “Only in America.”