For about 90 minutes Saturday, the most popular part of Crabtree Valley Mall was not the shops but a spectacle.
Todd Greenwald, wearing a siren-red blazer and yellow tie, stood on a double-tiered platform underneath the massive skylight in the center of the mall. Shoppers surrounded his stage and others leaned over the second-floor railing as Greenwald – in the style of a wrestling announcer – introduced the contestants of the All Pro Eating World Hamburger Eating Championship.
“People are fascinated by superheroes, characters,” said Greenwald, 41.
“When I get up there, I become someone else,” he said. “The Minister of Munch.”
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On weekdays, Greenwald works in commercial real estate. But nearly every weekend since 2010, he has orchestrated a modern-day embodiment of the “come one, come all” street performances of yore.
Sunlight illuminated an American flag hanging from the ceiling and reflected off Greenwald’s head as he barked out the nicknames of the 12 competitive eaters. They strutted down a staircase and through the crowd, high-fiving bystanders, before reaching the stage.
A seven-patty, 3.4-pound burger awaited each one of them, courtesy of sponsor Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes & Fries. The first person to eat all of it won $2,500. Some ate methodically and others stuffed their faces in a frenzy, leaving bits of diner food at their feet.
When I get up there, I become someone else – The Minister of Munch.
Molly Schuyler, a mother of four and the only female participant, set a record by eating all 55 ounces in a minute and 37 seconds – beating the previous All Pro Eating record by 16 seconds.
Onlookers held their phones aloft and took photos as the runner-up, “Notorious B.O.B.” Bob Shoudt, lifted Schuyler’s wrist into the air, and Greenwald belted her name. He handed Schuyler a large trophy adorned with a plastic hamburger, which she pretended to bite into.
Anderson Tabares, a shopper, recorded a Snapchat video from behind the stanchions as the scene unfolded. The commotion caught his ear after he emerged from the Clarks shoes store.
Tabares, a fan of the food show celebrities Adam Richman of “Man vs. Food” and Andrew Zimmern of “Bizarre Foods,” said he couldn’t look away.
“It’s like the American dream, right? Paid gluttony?” Tabares, 27, said.
Greenwald pushed back at such descriptions. He pointed out that very little food goes to waste. And Saturday’s contestants managed to eat most of their burgers and avoid what referee Rob Birmingham referred to as a “reversal.”
All Pro Eating, a competitor of Major League Eating founded in 2004, ranks its independent participants based on their performances in its contests, which include bratwursts, chicken wings and pumpkin pie.
Organizers say their eaters often prepare for contests by gorging, then fasting and then repeating that pattern. Schuyler, who lives near Sacramento, Calif., didn’t reveal keys to her success. She said she learned to eat fast while growing up with older brothers who ate a lot and got into the competitive eating world slowly.
“Someone bet me I couldn’t eat a burger at a local joint, and I just ate it. It kind of snowballed from there,” said Schuyler, 37. She’s since eaten three 72-ounce steaks in 20 minutes, 363 wings in 30 minutes and nine pounds of cottage cheese in 114 seconds.
Nonetheless, she rejected the “superhero” and “superhuman” labels that Greenwald throws around.
“I might eat a lot, but it’s just a stupid human trick,” Schuyler said afterward. “I’m just like you.”
Cody Lee, meanwhile, embraced his newfound spotlight.
Lee, 25, works as a police officer at the mall and won the amateur hamburger eating contest (held prior to the contest Schuyler won). Despite feeling sick on Friday, Lee beat three others by eating nearly all of his burger within 8 minutes.
He recalled the chants of “eat, eat, eat” while he tried to swallow chunks of cheesy meat.
“I thought I was going to choke, literally,” he said before pausing to reference a classic American film. “I like to think of myself as Rocky and everyone else as Apollo Creed.”