Reporter challenged by pancake eating contest

Contributed photo Aiken Standard reporter Teddy Kulmala smears some syrup on his pancakes before beginning the fourth annual Pancake Challenge at Auten’s on Saturday.

The plan was for me to cover Auten's Family Restaurant's fourth annual Pancake Challenge on Saturday for the Aiken Standard, but after arriving and learning from co-owner Sharon Auten that the contest had only three contestants just minutes before starting, I decided to be part of it.

The Pancake Challenge was born when the Autens wanted a special way to celebrate the anniversary of their restaurant opening on Pine Log Road.

“When we first opened up, we had to come up with something for our anniversary, and pancakes was one of our things, so we decided, 'Well, we'll do a pancake challenge,'” Sharon Auten said. The contest normally has between 10 and 12 contestants.

My stomach was growling, as I hadn't eaten since dinner the night before. I felt reasonably prepared for the impromptu challenge , and thought I could scarf down a good portion of the pancakes – and then they brought out the stacks of five dinner plate-sized hotcakes. One stack for each of the five contestants – oh, boy.

We had 10 minutes to eat as much of the pancakes as we could. If you left the table, you were disqualified. If you became sick, you were disqualified (however, they had buckets available in case you became sick and couldn't leave the table quick enough).

The pancakes were so big, they hung over the edges of the plate. We were told many contestants cut a portion out of the whole stack and eat it, but eating one pancake at a time would make it easier to count the total amount eaten.

I grabbed my knife and fork and prepared to stick to the “portion” strategy, but after the time keeper said “Go,” I realized the other contestants had picked up their first pancakes and were gobbling them down with their hands. One man rolled his pancake up and ate it like a burrito, while the guy next to me tore off pieces of pancake and dipped them in a cup of water.

I dropped the knife and fork and rolled up my first pancake. The first one went pretty well, and I found it helped to take a sip of water with each bite, to make it easier to chew. And now, the other four. I decided to tear the second one apart and eat it in chunks.

People in the restaurant gathered around and offered support, and one contestant's wife and daughter even stood across the table from him and held up paper signs they made cheering him on. Others offered tips like, “Don't slow down” or “Don't think about it; you'll fill up quicker.”

But we were all slowing down. One contestant stopped after one pancake, another across the table called it quits after two. We were nearing the end of what was probably the quickest 10 minutes of my life, and even the defending champion of last year's challenge hadn't finished his stack. I can only imagine the lovely facial expressions we were making.

I choked down the last bit of the second pancake as the last 30 seconds ticked away, and shoved a piece of the third pancake into my mouth as time was called.

Two contestants, Justin Reed and John Sintich, had each eaten four pancakes. To break the tie, they were each given another whole pancake, and the person who ate the most in one minute would win. I later found out Reed won last year's challenge after a tie-breaker.

Reed continued with his “burrito” method while Sintich stuck with the “tear and dip” method. One minute later, it looked like they had eaten the same amount, but it was determined Reed was the winner.

Reed, who won last year's challenge after eating six of the humongous hotcakes, shared one of his secrets while waiting to take a photo with his plaque.

“If you move back and forth like this, it opens up, it helps you relax your stomach and you can eat more,” he said, rocking his upper body left to right at the hips.

“The rest of the day is gone. You might as well chalk this one up as a lazy day,” he said.

Unfortunately, news doesn't stop and I dragged my full belly to other Saturday events to cover. However, the goody bags they gave each contestant containing Rolaids and peppermints came in handy.

Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He majored in communication studies at Clemson University.