He is slim, athletic, well spoken and very outgoing. He has a rigorous training regimen and is one of the most recognizable faces in his native Japan and around the world. However his livelihood is anything but mainstream, because Takeru Kobayashi is a competitive eater, and perhaps the most diverse competitive eater in the world. While most people look at competitive eating as a bit of a sideshow, the digital world, and many brands have seen opportunity. As a result, this “Kobi” has a rigorous competing, special event and endorsement schedule that can rival the “other” Kobe…the one who stars for the LA Lakers.
Also like Kobe Bryant, Kobayashi is not without his challengers and occasional controversy. The biggest one has involved the sports highest profile event, the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest on July 4 in Coney Island, which he was king of until a dispute over competition exclusivity forced him away from the competition. Ever the entrepreneur, the personable New York resident has not slowed down, setting records before 20,000 at Philadelphia’s Wing Bowl this past winter, and has built his brand away from the one event, even creating his own tent pole on July 4 in Brooklyn, the Crif Dog Classic, which will combine music, pop culture and yes, a little competitive eating closer to Manhattan (at Roberta’s in the Bushwick section) with the wildly popular and fast growing New York-based hot dog brand.
We caught up with Kobayashi to talk eating, branding, and the competitive nature of an unusual sport.
1. Competitive eating has always been sort of a sideshow. You have tried to change that image. Why?
I’m serious about the way I treat the event, so naturally I want others to take me seriously. I’ve always thought that if I can feel this way about challenging myself in this sport, that others would as well, and in conclusion, the viewers would do the same- as with other sports.
2. Many people think the sport is just about hot dogs, how many different kinds of events have you competed in over the years?
I don’t know how many. I’ve eaten hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, lobster rolls, rice balls, seafood bowls, noodles, bratwurst, cow brains, dumplings, sushi, chicken satay, steak, soba, soft tacos, chocolate cake, lamb pots, etc. – I’ve done solo challenges for grilled cheese sandwiches, turkey, cocktail wieners, burritos, coffee milk, and many more.
3. What is your favorite city to compete in and why?
That’s a difficult question. I suppose I like NY the most. Many of my friends and longtime supporters are here.. I also enjoy the massive amount of different ethnicity and cultures of people all in one place. It is always inspiring. But I love to travel and enjoy every city I go to – there is always something special about each place!
4. How long will your career last? Are you able to maintain your health for a long period of time?
I believe my career will last as long as I want it to. This means- simply IF, I choose to continue challenging my health with the changes that occur as I age, and fine tune my techniques. So if I decide to go another 15 more years abiding by this idea, I think I will.. and at the top.
5. If you weren’t a competitive eater what would you be doing?
If I wasn’t a competitive eater, I would love to do something working with dogs. Even now I think of this often. Also, I was majoring in economics as a university student, so maybe I would have been an accountant.
6. What would surprise people to learn about you?
That I actually never received my winning prize money from any of the nine years I took part in Coney Island.
7. Who is your role model…not just in eating but in life?
I don’t have one role model as a person, but I AM very inspired by the Japanese “samurai” mentality. I respect it very much.
8. There is so much worry about obesity and overeating these days in America. How can you help the anti-obesity campaigns?
I believe my knowledge from challenging my own health and the physical control I’ve learned over the years can be very beneficial to help in those in need of this information. I would love to share.
9. Tell us about Crif Dog and the 4th of July and how it differs from Nathan’s?
It would be more difficult to find something similar about them. The Crif Dog Classic is a big awesome party to celebrate independence and freedom on July 4th- full of wonderful musicians, artists, and great food and drinks. The hot dog competition is one part of it.
10. Many brands are downsizing portions to control costs. Will we have to see an asterisk in hot dog eating soon because portions will change the numbers?
The numbers of hot dogs will change for many reason when eating different brand dogs; not just because of downsizing.
11. Is there a “Holy Grail” of eating…a goal that you are building towards?
No. There is no specific “holy grail” number of eating for me. The only thing I tell myself before I go into a contest, is to at least eat one more than I did the last time. The point is, each time- to challenge myself to do better than before.