Nathan’s won’t let coronavirus dampen July 4th hot dog contest

Brand expects big things from annual Coney Island event, executive James Walker says in frank conversation


Ron Ruggless, Nation's Restaurant News 

Jul 01, 2020


While coronavirus may limit the size and scope of the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, the brand is forging ahead Saturday with a social-distanced competition indoors — but it is doing so with relish.


“You won’t have 40,000 raving fans watching from the corner of [Coney Island’s] Surf and Stillwell this year, but there are several things that make this in many ways the most exciting contest we’ve ever held,” said James Walker, senior vice president for Jericho, N.Y.-based Nathan’s Famous Inc.


As usual, the hot dog eating contest will be televised on cable’s ESPN at noon EDT but the tens of thousands of fans will be missing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.


“We’re holding it in an enclosed location in the Coney Island area,” Walker said in an interview. “And we have not only put in place for the eaters and judges everything from Plexiglass dividers and ensuring social-distancing criteria but also put in place safe pathways from green rooms to staging areas.”


For safety, the number of competitive eaters has also been reduced from 15 men and 15 women to five of each. Limits have been also put on how many production personnel will be involved, Walker said, and the event will not be open to the public.


“It’s very much about how to execute this contest at the highest degree of safety,” he added.


A silver lining for Nathan’s Famous this year is that the annual Wimbledon tennis competition has been canceled. ESPN, which has televised the contest live since 2004, has typically had more than a million views of the Coney Island event.


“Normally, this contest runs up against a very famous tennis match in England,” Walker said coyly. “This year will probably not only be the most watched of our contest, but the viewership will be incredible because there’s no competition for sporting activities. We’re expecting a huge viewership.”


Walker said reduced number of competitors expect to perform well. In the 2019 event, title holder Joey Chestnut won the male event by consuming 71 hot dogs and six-time winner Miki Sudo declared victory with 31 hot dogs. Winners get a $10,000 prize and a Mustard Belt in the Major League Eating sanctioned event.


Walker said contestants feel records may be shattered...


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