Recession Bargain or Fool's Challenge?

Oversized eating challenges might be your ticket to a free meal or stomachache.

November 28, 2008, 9:38 AM

Dec. 1, 2008— -- CLINTON, N.J. -- There's no such thing as a free lunch … or is there?

In these tough financial times, Americans are trying to save a buck any way they can.

And there's nothing like a free steak dinner, a free stack of pancakes or a free pizza. Several restaurants around the country offer such freebies. The catch: you need to wolf down gargantuan meals in a short amount of time. If you don't, you're stuck with a hefty check.

Consider the granddaddy of all challenges: the free 72-oz. steak challenge at the Big Texas Steak Ranch in Amarillo.

Diners at the Texas restaurant can get a 72-oz. top sirloin steak, a baked potato, salad, dinner roll and shrimp cocktail for free -- if they can finish it all in just 60 minutes. Failure brings a hefty $72 check. Winners get a T-shirt, a souvenir boot mug, a certificate and a spot on the "Wall of Fame."

Not bad, but since the challenge was started in 1960, nearly 50,000 people have attempted to consume the massive meal. Only 8,500 have managed to pass the test -- a 17 percent success rate. (And in case you were wondering, the record time was 8 minutes and 52 seconds.)

"That's almost five pounds of meat," said David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "For a lion, that's a reasonable meal."

Katz warns that such a big meal could stretch out your stomach too much, tear your esophagus or lead to any of a host of other health problems. The diner must decide whether a free meal is worth risking $40,000 worth of emergency surgery.

"Whether it's a super-sized bargain in time of a recession or just a general notion that no blue-blooded American can resist that all-you-can-buffet, what we need to recognize is that -- at a time of epidemic obesity -- extra calories at no extra charge are not necessarily a bargain," Katz said. "This is an opportunity to get fat at no extra charge. Most people are willing to spend money to lose weight."

Okay, that might be true, but there are plenty of these challenges across the country. Somebody must be trying them.

This reporter decided to become one of those people.

The 50-Pound Burger

The Clinton Station Diner can be found at an Interstate off-ramp in rural New Jersey, near the Pennsylvania border. On a recent rainy day I ventured there because the 24-hour diner, which brews fresh coffee every 20 minutes, is also home of the Mt. Olympus: a 50-pound hamburger.

Yes, that's right: 50 pounds of beef on a homemade bun with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and more calories than you could ever imagine.

If five people can eat the burger in three hours or less it is free, plus the stuffed customers split a $1,000 prize. Otherwise, they have to pay the $159.95 bill.

Has anybody ever accomplished the feat?

"Not yet," said diner owner Mike Zambas. "They are trying though."

Having never participated in an eating contest or anything of the sort, I was not about to try this alone.

So I sought the advice of King George.

No, he isn't some British monarch; just a guy from Jersey who really likes food.

George Van Laar has always been a big eater. He blames it on his grandmother who used to always say: "'Come on Georgie, eat what's put in front of you.' And I always did."

But he didn't get into it "professionally" until a 1999 hot dog eating competition. After an epic battle of chewing, swallowing and trying to prevent regurgitation -- or "reversal of fortune" as it's called by those in the business -- Van Laar emerged a champion, winning a pair of World Series tickets.

The king was born.

He now shows up at events wearing a royal crown and occasionally a red cape.

A True Value Meal?

The first bit of advice Van Laar had for me: stretch my stomach out the night before. Contrary to my first instinct, I was to eat a big dinner and then a light breakfast.

Okay, but 25 pounds of beef?

I was about to find out.

Van Laar and I took a corner table at the diner and waited for the Mt. Olympus to be carried out to us.

The best way to describe this burger is: gargantuan. Zambas has to bake a special bun big enough to hold the thing. An entire package of American cheese is used to cover it, as well as a whole head of lettuce and several tomatoes.

When the burger arrived at the table, every customer in the diner turned and looked at us. Several came over to check it out. And that's exactly what Zambas wants. We turned a normal Saturday afternoon lunch into a spectacle. Suddenly that couple two tables over got a side of entertainment with their BLT.

Van Laar and I are served a giant slab of the burger. Immediately, I doubt I can finish it. In fact, I doubt with 10 people we could finish this burger. Maybe 20.

I ask about ketchup and Van Laar advises: "you are an idiot if you add anything to it." Okay. Never mind.

We eat. We chew. We drink lots of water.

Other patrons come over to pose for photographs. Van Laar brought a stack of photos from other eating competitions. He autographs them and hands them out.

An hour passes and I am ready to accept defeat. We still have two hours left to accomplish this task but I have consumed more food than at any other time in my life and yet most of the burger remains.

Our waiter, Gezim Mavraj, comes over.

"Take your time, we never close," he reminds us.

Even George and his "iron-clad stomach" seem to be slowing. He explains: it's not the meat but the thick bun that makes this challenge virtually impossible.

The irony of the whole thing is that as I wolf this pile of beef I keep looking at this healthy eating ad on the table.

"You don't need to clean your plate," it says. "Consider sharing an appetizer, entree or dessert."

I take that as a sign. We get the rest of the burger to go and accept defeat.

Oversized Pancakes

If you don't like steak or burgers or meat, don't fret. There are still plenty of other eating challenges.

Each year, hikers along the Pacific Crest Trail stop in Seiad Valley, Calif., and try the pancake challenge at Rick Jones' café.

If they can finish five gigantic inch-thick pancakes in two hours or less they get the meal for free plus a T-shirt and a hat. Failure brings a $12 check.

The challenge has been around since 1985, and each year about 60 people try it. Only 16 have succeeded.

"They think they are hungry," Jones said. "Well, they are hungry but it's like putting 5 pounds in a 3-pound sack."

"It's something that's talked about up and down the trail," Jones said, adding that for most, it's just a "photo op."

A Big Dessert

That might be a great way to start your day, but to end it consider the Dare to be Great Sundae served at The Parlour in Jackson, Mich.

It's 21 scoops of ice cream plus chocolate syrup, pineapples, strawberries, marshmallows, chopped nuts and whipped cream and, of course, cherries.

Wow, that's a lot of dessert.

"And our scoops are really big, they're like baseball sized," said general manager Elaine Strader.

Eat it by yourself in an hour and it's free. Only one or two people a year succeed. The rest have to pay $29.99. Winners and losers get their names on a board. There are a lot more names under the attempt column than the success column.

"It's a very an elite group," Strader said. "I've personally never seen anybody try it twice."

Attempting the sundae challenge is about pride more than anything else. Strader said that most of the challengers tend to be teenage males.

Recessions Bring Promotions

The promotion or giveaway is nothing new. Companies have always tried to lure customers with something different. When gas prices were high, hotels and casinos were offering patrons free gas cards.

Today's economic downturn is bringing back many of those cash giveaways. For instance, Doritos is asking Americans to create their own Super Bowl ads. Five finalists will win $25,000 each. The top prize is $1 million.

When Clyde Volte was hired 15 years ago to help J&R's Steak House brand itself, he thought up the 76-oz. Steak Challenge. Basically, he found the largest steak challenge in the country and decided to top it at the New York restaurant.

"The primary thing was to have us different than somebody else," he said. "Everybody has to have a gimmick."

Vlote said that few people are looking to save money by trying the challenge.

"It's more of a pride of this point," he said. "I don't think anybody came in seeking a free meal. That might be in the back of their head but the ego is mainly the thing. They usually come in with two or three friends. Very few people come in by themselves."

It's All About Fun

Arnie Chapman knows a thing or two about eating. He heads the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters, which works with different venues to host competitions.

The key for restaurants is that they usually get a lot of publicity, especially from the local media.

Some challenges are doable, others are in Chapman's mind nothing more than "suckers bets, that nobody's ever going to do."

The key, he said, is that the owners with the best events are the type of people with a great sense of humor.

"The one thing I've tried to do with competitive eating is never take the silliness out of it," Chapman said. "It's all about going back to the best time in my life, which was sixth grade."