IF YOU GO
WHAT: Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest
WHERE: On the lawn across from The Pub at Mercato, 9118 Strada Place
WHEN: 1 p.m. Saturday
Noncompetitors are welcome to watch.
NAPLES — The Mustard Belt is up for grabs, and two Collier County men are hungry for a spot in the nation's top hot dog eating competition.
This Saturday, they will join a dozen more competitors in a local qualifier for the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, held annually on the Fourth of July. This weekend's winner will earn a spot at the table in Coney Island, where about 20 women and men will eat as many beef hot dogs as possible, bun included, in 10 minutes.
Elbows straddling plates of dogs on a dining table, Jesse Schertell and Ryan Fantasia met after work Wednesday for a mini training session at Schertell's East Naples home.
"Let's do quickest to four," Fantasia said, "I don't want to spoil my dinner."
The two buddies, both salesmen in their early 30s, face off; the hot dogs (Nathan's brand, just like in the competition) are stacked. A wide-rimmed glass of water is nearby.
Schertell's wife Stephany starts the timer as their 4-year-old son looks on.
Dip. Chomp. Chew. Swallow.
"Don't doubt yourself, babe," Stephany Schertell said. "This is our name here."
Schertell, who is standing, commits a game-ending error. He leaves the hot dog and bun soaking in the water too long as he chews another one. The soggy dog falls apart, and he scrambles to still get it to his mouth. Those are the official rules. Participants need to clear their plates.
Fantasia — no, it's not a stage name — is sitting, focused, head cocked slightly to one side as he follows a method of sipping water from one cup and dunking the dogs in another to facilitate eating.
He finishes in 90 seconds, a pace that could get Fantasia a chance at the $10,000 prize and the coveted "Mustard Belt," the bejeweled accessory given to the winner of the men's division at Coney Island. In late April, at one of 12 regional qualifying competitions in Las Vegas, the winner downed 30 links in 10 minutes. The current world record, 68 hot dogs, is held by five-time champion Joey Chestnut.
The man to beat Saturday is Adrian Morgan, a Louisianian ranked seventh by Major League Eating, a New York-based organization that oversees professional eating contests, including the Nathan's event.
"In the old days, it used to be 15 or 16 (hot dogs) could get you in. Now it has to be north of 20," said Richard Shea, MLE cofounder.
Schertell knows what it takes to win. He's been watching ESPN broadcasts of the competition for years. When he saw a Facebook post that Mercato would be hosting the first regional qualifier in the area, he knew it was time to move from casual observer to participant.
"I told my wife not to tell Ryan because I wanted to make sure I got in first," said Schertell. He laughs, but he's serious. He only told his friend about the competition after he received confirmation of his application: an online form that asked for name, contact information, eating specialty, and age. The only requirement is that contestants be at least 18 years old.
Friendship only goes so far. Schertell and Fantasia both see themselves as potential rookie powerhouses, like Morgan who only began in 2010 and quickly ascended to the top ranks. In part, it's a matter of who wants it more. There are strategies.
Schertell plans to binge on watermelon and lettuce Friday to "expand his stomach." He won't reveal how many he can eat already, though he said he's been training for weeks.
Fantasia believes going into the event hungry is the key, and plans to fast before the 1 p.m. start time.
There are so many variables. Some buns absorb more water, leading to Schertell's training error. Should condiments be used? The friends shun them, although they are optional.
There is one constant, though: the requirement to keep them down until the 10 minutes are up.
"I'm not going down without a fight," said Fantasia. "It's all for bragging rights."