2011 June: IN IT TO WIN IT

Imagine your customers ordering their pizza not by the inch –– but by the pound. And the goal? Getting them to polish it off in-house for a chance at t-shirts and cash but best of all, glory.

Such is the idea behind eating challenges popping up in restaurants across the country. Televised events, such as the Travel Channel’s “Man vs. Food” and Nathan’s Famous July Fourth International Hot Dog Eating Contest have made competitive eating a sport, and it’s one that our industry can –– and should be –– cashing in on.

At The Original Graziano’s Pizza in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Monster Pizza Challenge features two-and-a-half pounds of dough, one-and-a-half pounds of sauce, and two pounds each of mozzarella, meat and vegetables. That’s a whopping 10 pounds of pizza, and if two people conquer it in 45 minutes, they win the cost of the pizza, two free pizzas and t-shirts. The pizza is priced at $48 and runs a food cost of about 30 percent.

Owner Paul Otto says he came up with the idea about three-and-a-half years ago as a conversation topic for his guests “and something that would be sort of a ‘wow’ factor when people came in the restaurant,” Otto says. “We already had started serving this 24-inch extra-large, giant pizza on our menu, so we just thought, ‘Why don’t we double the size and make it over 10 pounds and make it a contest?’

“It has been a huge topic of interest and we have huge display on our wall of people who have tried it –– we have the Wall of Shame and the Wall of Fame.” Graziano’s created a logo and had signs made advertising the Monster Pizza Challenge and “anyone who comes in or out of the restaurant sees it,” Otto adds. “People just immediately got to that wall and say, ‘Wow! I can’t believe how big that pizza is! I can’t believe anyone can possibly eat it.’”

Only two teams out of more than 60 have been able to finish the challenge. “We encourage people to let us know in advance, especially if it’s going to be on a busy night, but if people want to just come in off the street, we’ll take care of them then and there,” Otto says –– including setting up a table and signs at the center of the restaurant, making an announcement and taking before and after photos. “We try to make a big deal out of it.”

Christopher Palmeri has owned The Naked City Pizza Shop in Las Vegas for less than a year and has been advertising the Frickin’ Huge Pizza Challenge for the last couple of months. Two competitors have just 30 minutes to devour one of the company’s signature Buffalo-style sheet 18½ by 24-inch sheet pans of pizza topped with at least four ingredients. He created the challenge, which he recently added to his Web site, as a result of customer demand.

“They’ve got a little disclaimer they have to sign and it’s got a list of toppings they can choose from,” Palmeri says. “Basically, everything when it’s laid out –– before its cooked –– weighs 10 pounds.” The pizza is priced at $37.50 and runs a 20- to 25-percent food cost, but winners receive commemorative shirt, recognition on an awards wall and the pizza for free. Only one team has completed the challenge at press time. “They completed it in 16 minutes,” Palmeri says. “It was pretty horrifying to watch.”

David Walton’s Fox’s Pizza Den in Athens, Georgia, sits in a college town, and Walton’s has had 11 teams try to best Fox’s The Big One Challenge, but to no avail. The 30-inch, three-topping hoss is cut into 52 slices and priced at $50 (without the challenge, it’s $39.99 for a cheese with $5 per additional topping). Depending on toppings added, the food cost is around $15. “Three people have up to 52 minutes to complete the entire pizza,” Walton says. “They have to eat everything, and they can’t take breaks.”

Winners receive t-shirts and spots on the “Wall of Fame.” Although no one has yet to finish, a couple of teams have gotten within five pieces of completion. Walton plans to take his competition one step further –– the first team to complete it will become the score to beat until there’s an eventual grand champion.

To market their contest, Graziano’s adds it to their fliers, boxtoppers and print materials. “That’s kind of our tagline –– ‘Home of the Monster Pizza Challenge.’ Says Otto: “We have a nice little logo drawn up, and we’ll put that on all of our advertisements, whether it’s print or e-mail. Most of the advertising is through word-of-mouth.” In April, Naked City’s Pizza Shop’s traffic began picking up thanks in part to additional information on its Web site and “I’m big into all the social media,” Palmeri says. “We use Twitter and Facebook a lot and we’re going to start using YouTube to start taking small videos of it.”

Fox’s has offered the 30-inch pizza since it opened, but the challenge was only added in the last few months. “We’ve added a Facebook page, and we’re marketing it as the biggest pizza in town,” Walton says. The pizza is available without undertaking the challenge, and Walton has done deal-of-the-day Web site offers to advertise the pizza. “That started creating some awareness for it.”

If you’re considering creating a challenge for your own operation, consider these tips:
Draft a waiver that releases you from liability. Create a list of rules and stick to them. “The biggest rule is that no one can get sick,” Otto says. “If you’re sick, you forfeit the challenge. It’s not supposed to be a gross-out fest!” Create a press release and submit it to Web sites that follow competitive eating as a sport. Otto says there are three or four Web sites that list eating contests in cities across the country.

Contact local news outlets, including television stations, newspapers and alternative magazines. “If you have the tools to do it, then do it,” Palmeri says. “It’s just another tool to get your pizzeria’s name out there, and that’s the struggle for any business.”

Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today.