Meet the ACF National Convention speaker who connects competitive eating to best business practices
By Kelsey Casselbury
Has it ever seemed like you’ve been underestimated in your chosen career field? Competitive eater Mary Bowers knows that feeling. Standing a petite 5 feet, 3 inches tall, Bowers doesn’t look like your typical competitive eater—but she’s turned out to be one of the sport’s most recognizable personalities.
Given her small stature, Bowers finds herself constantly being underestimated by her competitors. She knows, though, that it’s not a phenomenon that’s limited to her chosen field. “I think everybody is familiar with being underestimated in whatever field they are in, so there are a lot of parallels to business and life,” she surmises. “I like to share with people my mentality of how I approach my sport.”
This is the basis for Bowers’ session at the ACF National Convention, scheduled for July 19-23, 2020, in Dallas, though she says that her planned talk has been modified since the COVID-19 pandemic began. “I was going to talk about choosing to step up to the plate and seize the opportunities in front of you,” she says. “What I failed to realize is that sometimes, someone chucks that plate straight at your head and you have no choice. For some, COVID19 has been a complete knock-out. For others, a serious but recoverable injury. And for a few, they’ve managed to duck the initial blow but are still left to clean up the broken pieces. Yet, if anybody can adapt, it is chefs.”
Bowers draws many parallels between her experience in competitive eating and how to run a business. One key point that she had previously planned to discuss related to opportunity cost, a lesson related to competitive eating. “That’s how I got involved in the sport to begin with—it was a risk assessment on my part,” she says, adding that she plans to speak about analyzing the risks and opportunities that are in your life.
For those less-familiar with the sport of competitive eating, it refers to a contest of 12 to 14 people who eat as much of a specific food as they can within a given amount of time, Bowers says. Not only do contestants receive prize money for winning, but they can also earn sponsorships for being in the competition.
Like other sports, the Major League Eating season is indefinitely on hold, Bowers explains. “Though we are all continuing to train and prepare for the inevitable recovery, many of us are finding ways to help in our own communities by connecting our sponsors to those in need in the meantime,” she says.
Bowers, who was previously in architecture, found her way into the sport with a hot dog competition that she thought was something small and local—turned out, she says, it was broadcast in 14 countries. “I got thrown into the deep end right away, but it’s been a lot of fun,” she adds. Now, Bowers is going prepping for the 2020 season—it runs about the same as baseball’s season—which will be her ninth year.
Her favorite competitions are ones in which she gets to eat pie or what’s called “debris foods.” “Something like ribs, chicken wings, corn—anything where there’s a leftover part of the food that you’re not eating at the end,” she explains. “Those foods tend to be more about technique in the contest. I think the top guy in the sport right now holds about 22 pounds of food in his body. I don’t physically have the ability to do that, so debris foods level the playing field for me.”
She knows that the ACF National Convention may have a different tone than it has previously. “The tasks ahead of humanity can feel monumental, even crushing at times. Our world feels like it changed in an instant,” Bowers notes. “But perhaps the way forward is to keep doing the things we know, to hold tightly to the things and people we love in new and different ways. If there is a silver lining in the storm, it is that I am more grateful for the things I once took for granted – traveling, eating contests, toilet paper, and hugs. Not coincidentally, that seems to be the same sequence of things in the world of competitive eating.” Now we just have to find some toilet paper.
Kelsey Casselbury is a freelance writer specializing in foodservice, fitness, nutrition, food and beverage, health and wellness. (firstname.lastname@example.org)