Dan Sherman’s got a little P.T. Barnum in his soul. The charismatic Vice President of Marketing at Pacific Plumbing Supply has a knack for coming up with cool events — and recently he outdid himself. Sherman developed the idea for the Wings of Fire — a contest in which eight brave employees and customers downed crazy-hot-7-alarm chicken wings all in the name of charity.
The “cover boy” for the event was Pacific’s own Cletus Kathol, who designs hydronic heating systems at the company's Seattle Green Room. A bit of a daredevil, he is known for base- and bungee- jumping, and as a child was snagged in the nick of time by a neighbor when he tried to launch off the roof of his school, in a cape, on his bicycle ala Evel Knievel. He’s also a big fan of spicy food, and his propensity for eating ultra-smokin’-hot wings was the catalyst for Sherman’s idea. Pacific's marketing department created a flyer for event. The result was a hilarious design of Kathol’s face atop an eagle with its wings spread. In true form, Pacific created honorary t-shirts exclusively for Kathol and his wife for the event.
Pacific wanted to find a great way to give back to the local community, and chose Seattle Children’s Hospital as the recipient. Pacific transformed its Green Room in Seattle into a virtual studio for the contest, with videographers, lots of interviews, spotlights, a cheering audience of about 100 and, of course, some “gag gifts” – no pun intended! There was even a fire truck on hand, thanks to Washington Energy Services. Pacific enlisted Noritz as a co-sponsor, and together created the "win" for Childrens' Hospital; for each challenger who finished his plate of wings, the two companies combined to donate $100 to Childrens'. Lunch was catered by the Wing Dome, and included a wide variety of wings — not just the hot ones — for all the spectators. Pacific asked that attendees consider an in-kind donation to Children’s Hospital in lieu of paying for lunch.
After the “smoke cleared,” Pacific helped to raise over $2,000 for Children’s Hospital — in just one hour over lunch. In conjunction with the event, Pacific ran a month-long Noritz promotion at all of its Washington branches: For every Noritz water heater Pacific sold, the customer earned a $50.00 Visa Gift Card and Pacific made a donation to Children’s Hospital in that customer’s name. Sherman already is planning for next year’s event and said their goal is to at least double the funds raised this year.
Contest rules were pretty straightforward:
• Eight contestants
• Eat seven “Wing Dome 7-Alarm Wings”
• No other food or drink during the 7-minute challenge — even if you finish early
• Must lick plates & fingers clean.
I had a chance to talk with Sherman and Kathol after the event about the entire experience:
MJM: Dan, in an industry dominated by golf, fishing and hunting outings, how in the world did you come up with this idea?
Sherman: Cletus and I were talking one day before lunch and told me that he was a member of an exclusive Wing Dome “club” created for folks entering their eating contests. I didn’t even know they had a club. A wing-eating club. I was fascinated. Cletus pulled me into his office, and showed me pictures of all the swag he had collected from these contests he had completed. There were t-shirts, headbands, cups — and he had won money.
A light bulb went off and I thought that this might be a really fun way we could raise money for a good cause. And literally, over the next three or four days, we created the entire program and got everything and everyone involved. From inception to event, it was less than a 60-day turnaround.
When it came to a co-sponsor, I thought we needed a manufacturer who equated with “hot.” We had been meeting with Noritz for a while, trying to find a way to do a promo together. This was a perfect match. I called them, and then got their rep involved. The entire team was very supportive of it.
MJM: Cletus, I live in Texas and like spicy food, but this is so far over the top! And this wasn’t even the first time you ate these wings. What makes you want to do this?
Kathol: I’ve always liked spicy food and hot wings. My wife is from Northern California and she cooks everything with hot peppers. And before I joined Pacific, I traveled all over the world with the Navy, so I’ll eat pretty much anything. The first time I did the official Wing Dome challenge was when I was home on leave from the Navy, and went with some friends. I thought it was cool that they put your picture on the wall if you complete the challenge.
MJM: Truthfully, how hard was it to find guinea pigs for this?
Sherman: Through the Green Room we already knew we had a few customers who liked hot wings, so we were pretty sure they’d do it. We got them lined up right away. Crazy as it sounds, once we started talking about it to folks, it was easy to get them on board.
MJM: Talk about some of the fun you had in setting this up?
Sherman: Some of it was for fun; some was literally for safety. One of the first things I thought would be beneficial was safety. So we had protective eyewear for everyone. And then we had buckets in case somebody reached their “critical mass.” We also gave everyone them towels to wipe off the sweat and maybe other unmentionables.
We also had prizes for all of our contestants. Each person got a really nice craft beer set, since that’s such a good fit with wings. We also gave them Wing Dome gift cards so they could go for further abuse later and relive their experience. We had Pepto-Bismol bottles for everyone — some may have even snuck a few swigs from them before the contest. I’m pretty sure that was not in the rule book. One of our customers slathered in Chapstick to try to protect his lips before he started. Needless to say, that was short-lived.
MJM: So for us mere mortals, can you give us an idea of what this actually tastes like?
Kathol: Honestly, it just tastes like burning. It’s extremely hot. Licking the sauce is the hardest part. They put a lot of sauce on the plate and you literally have to lick it clean. It’s basically straight capercin extract. The toughest part is just sitting there with your mouth on fire and it just keeps getting hotter. One of the guys finished the wings in two minutes and then had to sit there with his mouth burning for the next five minutes. I had a strategy of packing myself and eating one wing a minute so that I’d be done right at the buzzer and be able to get relief. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s just fun. I liked the idea of doing it for charity; the first time I did it was really just peer pressure.
Sherman: I tasted some of the sauce. It registered 600 on the Scoville Scale of hotness. If you can imagine, taking a marshmallow that you were roasting on a fire to the point of being all bubbly — and then you put it in your mouth. Pretty much that and fire.
MJM: How do you relieve the burning afterwards?
Kathol: It stays with you for a while. You can bet your mouth is going to burn a good 20 minutes afterward. What works for me is usually an ice cream sandwich, milk, or Pepto-Bismol. I know it sounds crazy, but it was really fun and there was a great vibe among everybody who came. The room was packed and everybody really got into it.
MJM: Since you’re a “veteran” at this, how did you prepare?
Kathol: My wife helped me put together my “flaming” headband and wristbands. We thought it would help stop the sweat drop, because the minute you take your first bite, you start sweating profusely and you don’t want it getting in your eyes.