From left, Chris Anderson, John Hogan and Jason Rittel compete in a state Department of Administration hot dog eating contest to raise money for Partners in Giving.
Budget policy analyst Dan Subach walks into the Wisconsin Room at the Department of Administration building with 45 hot dogs, setting 15 franks in front of three competitors. This is no ordinary DOA luncheon.
A crowd of employees has gathered around the table to watch the spectacle, as Subach introduces the men about to face off in an eating contest.
“He went into the IT field because he heard you get to work with both cookies and spam,” booms Subach to the delight of his co-workers. “He’s all about the mega-bite...Chris ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ Anderson.”
The contest is part of a “tailgate party” for DOA employees at the agency’s headquarters on East Wilson Street to mark the end of the eight-week Partners in Giving campaign. Each year, millions of dollars are donated by state and UW employees in Dane County through the workplace fundraising campaign. But today’s event is mostly about watching colleagues force hot dogs down their gullets.
“Some say our next contestant was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. It’s true, and he hasn’t laid it down since,” jokes Subach. “He went to a Jimmy Buffett concert because he thought it was all-you-could-eat. He claims he’s going to be in the weiner circle...John ‘Hollow Leg’ Hogan.”
After the applause dies down, Subach introduces the final contender.
“His working title is State Capitol superintendent. He got this title because he does a super job of walking around the Capitol asking his co-workers, ‘Do you intend to eat that?’ He can clear a table like a hurdler...Jason ‘Dinner Dude’ Rittel.’”
These three guys, about to battle for the title of DOA hot dog eating champion, usually go by different titles: Anderson is information system professional for the State Transforming Agency Resources (STAR) Project; Rittel is superintendent for the Wisconsin State Capitol; and Hogan is assistant deputy secretary. Rittel and Hogan have draped clear plastic ponchos over their button-down shirts, while Anderson wears oversized novelty sunglasses, a purple fedora and a white paper cape.
A timer is set to five minutes, and they’re off. Rittel gobbles down the dogs like a champ for an early lead. Hogan isn’t far behind and dunks the buns in water in order to choke them down. Anderson is taking a slow and steady approach. But an increasing look of dread sweeps over his face as he methodically chews, takes a sip of water and swallows.
“It’s the first year we’ve had a hot dog eating contest,” says Angela Keelan-Martinez, a policy analyst. “It’s just a fun way to end this year’s campaign.”
Keelan-Martinez volunteers her time to chair the Partners in Giving fundraising drive for the DOA. Proceeds from selling lunches at the event will also go to charity. All the food was paid for by state workers. Keelan-Martinez paid out of her own pocket for Maynard G. Mallard — mascot of the Madison Mallards — to appear at the fundraiser to add excitement to an otherwise normal workday.
“We consider this an extension of our public service to make Wisconsin and the world a better place,” says Keelan-Martinez, noting that state workers in Dane County raised $2.5 million through Partners in Giving last year. “State employees are always very generous.”
But they have reasons not to be. In 2011, Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 effectively cut salaries for thousands of state employees with benefit reductions in health care and retirement plans — hitting the pocketbooks of the lowest-paid workers the hardest.
In January, additional protections for state workers were curtailed with an overhaul of the Wisconsin civil service law. Several attendees at the hot dog contest ask not to be quoted. When asked why, one employee says, “Have you been under a rock the last five years?”
But with seconds left in the contest, those wounds appear far from anyone’s minds, as the crowd hoots and hollers encouragement.
“Five. Four. Three. Two. One,” chants the crowd in the final seconds of the competition. The eaters are given robust applause as they swallow final bites of mangled hot dogs and buns.
But the levity can’t last forever. Soon, employees head back to their offices to perform the duties of the state.
Was Isthmus invited to this event? No
Hot dog eating contest results
1st place: Jason “Dinner Dude” Rittel with 8 dogs
2nd place: John “Hollow Leg” Hogan with 4.5 dogs
3rd place: Chris “Who Let the Dogs Out” Anderson with 3 dogs
Number of actual dogs at the event: One. Yachi, a yellow lab. A member of the Capitol Police force, Yachi is the only dog in the state certified to detect explosives on a mobile target. She can sniff out the invisible “vapor wake” left by a bomb that’s on the move.
Partners in Giving started: 1973
Total money raised: More than $70 million
Recipients: 520 local, regional, national and international charities and umbrella organizations such as Community Shares and United Way of Dane County