How to Get 10,000 Wings from the Fryers to the Faces of Competitive Eaters at the Wing Bowl
Prepping the world's biggest chicken-wing-eating contest means handling a lot of meat, a lot of sauce, and a lot of deep-frying in the middle of the night.
All photos by Danya Henninger
As camera hordes rushed to surround a greasy-faced woman flanked by go-go dancers in neon electric tape, Jim Fris took a step back and breathed a sigh of relief. Molly Schuyler had just been crowned winner of Wing Bowl 24, after eating 429 wings in less than 30 minutes.
It's not that Fris was a special fan of the intriguingly petite, 120-pound Nebraska native, who bested a competitor nearly twice her size to pick up her second Wing Bowl title (she also won in 2014). It's that as COO of the restaurant group that owns P.J. Whelihan's, the New Jersey-based pub that provides the competition's wings, Fris is the man ultimately responsible for making sure the world-famous event's namesake food makes its way to eaters' mouths without a hitch.
Granted, the popularity of the pre-Super Bowl wing-eating contest put on by SportsRadio 94 WIP each year in Philadelphia isn't entirely based on food consumption. The 20,000 fans that pack Wells Fargo Center don't show up just to see grown adults shovel 30 pounds of poultry down their throats in record time.
They're also drawn by the barely dressed go-go dancers and strippers (referred to as "Wingettes") tasked with ferrying plates of wings to the competitors, and many come to revel in the general atmosphere of debauchery that makes female audience members feel comfortable (or compelled) to bare their chests when TV cameras shine their way.
But whatever else goes on at the South Philly stadium during the three-hour spectacle—and make no mistake, a lot does go on—would grind to a screeching halt if the main ingredient was amiss. Or, heaven forbid, missing.
"We have an over/under bet on how many times Jim's going to say, 'Do we have enough wings?'" said Jake Karley, beverage manager for PJW. Karley's been with the company for 17 years, including around nine years ago, when it became Wing Bowl wing purveyor for the first time.
The idea for PJW to partner with the notorious eating event came from Craig Kaplan, a well-known sports agent. CEO Bob Platzer took one look at the promo video, filled with scantily clad women and foul language, and immediately put the kibosh on the concept. But Kaplan wasn't one to give up easily, and he enlisted Platzer's favorite sports star, Flyers hockey player Chris Therien, to make the pitch for him. Within 48 hours, Platzer had changed his mind. Fris remembers answering a 7 AM Sunday morning phone call to his boss's voice saying, "We're gonna do Wing Bowl!"
The competition wasn't nearly as big back then, but it was growing fast. Organizers asked PJW to bring a total of 3,500 wing pieces to stock the eating frenzy, but the team showed up with 5,000 instead. Good thing. "We would have been screwed with just 3,500," Fris said. This year, they were ready to serve double that amount.
Think about how tough it is to get even one order of wings delivered in tasty form for a game-day party, and the question arises: How do 10,000 drums and flappers make their way from fryolators in New Jersey ten miles across the river to Philadelphia and still end up edible? Complicating the whole scenario is the fact that Wing Bowl kicks off at 6 AM (it was conceived as a promotion for a morning talk show), so food prep can't just be tacked onto a regular workday.
To address the timing, PJW starts frying the wings just after midnight the night before, and a bank of five fryolators bubble throughout the wee hours. Instead of asking grunt employees to go without sleep, the top brass decided early on to handle the project themselves.
That means the pair of cooks who loaded wire basket after wire basket with 100 pieces of fresh bird and dunked them in hot oil last night were none other than PJW executive chef Rich Friedrich and new store chef trainer Terry Bailey. In contrast with what's on P.J. Whelihan's regular menu, Wing Bowl wings are the smallest Sysco sells—approximately 12 or 13 to a pound—and each batch takes eight to ten minutes to turn a crisp golden-brown, equating to around three hours of fryer time for the pair of kitchen pros.
Wing Bowl rules state each contestant must get an equivalent number of "drums" (the knobby part) and "flappers" (the double-bone segment), so after learning from a first-year fiasco that saw PJW top management picking apart already-sauced wings just before plating, the parts are separated before they get dunked in the hot oil.
After the fry, wings are dumped into sturdy foil catering trays, sealed with crimped edges, and shoved into a hotbox to wait for game time. Keeping the racks at a temperature that's not overly hot is critical, something PJW found out only after a minor mishap one year when five trays were overheated to the point of unusability—the meat simply wouldn't stay on the bone. Because the built-in temp display isn't always accurate, Friedrich now brings along a laser thermometer for spot checks.
Once all the wings are fried, getting them to the stadium is a matter of loading the hotboxes onto the truck—but simply getting all the bird cooked can sometimes go awry. In 2014, for example, there was the matter of a small grease fire that temporarily shut down the kitchen as fire trucks from multiple municipalities rolled up outside.
"I don't care if the building burns down, just let's get the wings out of here and into another kitchen so we're not late for the event!" Fris remembers thinking. It was a foolish and unrealistic thought that he'd never have made good on, of course, but such is the great burden of pressure he feels. Happily, the fire was easily quenched and frying continued apace.
This year, no such calamity arose, and the drums and flappers safely and quickly made their way to South Philadelphia. After trucking the wings into a room next to the arena floor, the PJW folks sit and wait for the competition to draw near.
"It's all a game of hurry up and wait," Fris said. As guests and eaters start to fill the stadium (doors open at 5 AM), his team distracts themselves with games like cornhole, poker, and a nice spread of light food, coffee, and Vitamin Water to keep awake.
Karley, the beverage manager, also snacks on a wing here or there. "Quality control," he said each time someone asked.
When the main event is around an hour away, it's saucing time. The crew of nine pops open huge jugs of Cattlemen's BBQ sauce and sets up an assembly line to toss it with each tray of wings and get them back in the hotbox as quickly as possible. Then, the boxes get rolled out to the event floor, where they're plugged in until go time.
Wing Bowl opens with each eater parading around the field like a WWE wrestler, complete with float and costumed entourage. While the audience is distracted by that early procession, PJW folks start the process of laying out styrofoam plates, and then eventually begin dropping a very specific number of wings onto them.
A dozen or so young waitresses who work in the PJW restaurant group then arrive. It'll be their job to act as another layer of go-between, placing one precisely-loaded dish in front of each competitor and handing a pair of refill plates to the exotic dancers standing behind them. When event host Angelo Cataldi says "Go!" the burst of slurping, sucking, grabbing, and gasping begins. PJW servers supply additional wings as needed, until time runs out or—as happened a record six times this year—someone gets disqualified for puking ("You heave, you leave" is the contest's cardinal rule).
There are actually three rounds of eating, and this is the stage where things get messy. BBQ sauce is smeared on everything from chins to cheeks to clothing. "I don't know where to wipe my hands," wailed one Wingette, looking fruitlessly around for help. "I guess I'll just rub them on my fishnets." Other Wingettes embrace their dirty fingers and use them to dig into leftover wing plates between competition sessions.
After the first round finishes, Fris says, "I feel a little tiny bit of relief." But it's not until the 60 seconds tick down that he feels the job is successfully complete. "That last minute is the longest minute of my life."
Eventually, the clock buzzes, and the PJW crew can exhale and prepare for some weekend R&R. But there's one snack they probably won't kick back with: "We're not gonna be able to eat wings for a month!"