For 10 years before the pandemic, Curly’s Frozen Custard — located at 4017 Camp Bowie in Fort Worth — created extreme excitement with its very own Nathan’s FamousHot Dog Chomp-election.
Newspapers wrote about the affair annually and News/Talk WBAP 820 conducted live interviews with Curly founder/managing partner Bourke Harvey each year. The event caught the attention of local television stations with their own version of must-see television.
The contest was an intentional effort by Harvey when he switched hot dog brands on June 30, 2011. He contacted Nathan’s Famous and received permission to hold his own hot dog eating contest, but with its own adjustments.
Television reporters covered the local event as an attachment to the national championship at Coney Island, where defending champion Joey Chestnut devours just under a million hot dogs every 4th of July.
Stations would air the story after the Nathan’s Famous competition at Coney Island with, “Meanwhile, in Fort Worth, Curly’s Frozen Custard held their annual Nathan’s Famous event, and the Grandmaster champion was…”
Unlike the Coney Island event which featured professional eaters/athletes (yes, those contestants call themselves “athletes”!), Curly’s timed contestants here at Ft. they slam four quarter pound hot dogs – with massively thick buns!
Interestingly, many competitors were able to eat three hot dogs very quickly, but the fourth, with the gourmet bun, took the challenge, well, immense. It was not uncommon for a contestant to eat the first three hot dogs in just a few minutes, only to chew on the fourth hot dog again three minutes later.
The contest was a success, but as country music superstar Kenny Rogers said in his song, The beta: You have to know when to hold them, know when to bend them.
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So, over the July 4, 2020 holiday, Bourke Harvey decided to do something different, something that would be safe and adhere to social distancing guidelines amid the pandemic: He offered free hot dogs to the first 200 customers on July 4 with no purchase necessary. There was a limit of one free hot dog per person.
It was the same quarter pound Nathan’s Famous with the thick brioche bread that the contestants ate in the original local contest.
The transition was a huge success. With continued concerns over social/public gatherings last year, Harvey repeated the offer of free hot dogs. Again, customers loved the opportunity to enjoy the “Official Hot Dog of the Summer” for free.
When considering how to proceed this summer with events reopening to crowds, Harvey decided to continue the 200 free hot dogs and drop the contest. “We have received so many positive comments over the past two years that customers have enjoyed a free hot dog on our nation’s birthday that we will continue the 200 free hot dogs,” he said. . “This way, we benefit from 200 guests instead of the few dozen candidates.”
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Delighted customers hailed the decision:
- “It’s so perfect – we are attending our 4th of July neighborhoode parade around and then come to Curly’s.
- “It’s a wonderful way to celebrate our nation’s birthday. It may be a small gesture for Curly’s, but it really means a lot to us as neighbors.
- “We have created a new family tradition – coming to Curly’s on the 4the!”
Customers always flock to Curly’s for its Parker County Peach ice cream in July, so there’s an added reason to visit on July 4th.
Business Lessons Learned:
- Recognize when forced changes during the pandemic or other disruptive events can lead to increased customer engagement.
- Understand that sometimes a series of events takes its course and needs something fresh and new.
- Realize that reaching more of your customers is more beneficial for everything concerned.
The Curly’s experience with July Fourth innovation highlights two timeless questions for business operators large and small: What are the sacred cows of your business that need to be revisited and possibly reinvented? And how to redeploy your strengths to make the new version even more interesting and efficient?