Canteen update

A Canteen Lunch in the Alley worker prepares a sandwich Thursday afternoon. Saturday's World Championship Eating Contest is set for 1 p.m. Saturday in the Canteen Alley.

OTTUMWA — If this year’s contestants at the World Championship Eating Contest want to set a new record Saturday, they’ll have their plates full.

Last year’s champion Gideon Oji, ranked sixth in the world, set a mark of 18.5 in 2018. Oji will be back in Ottumwa Saturday to defend his title. He’ll have stiff competition, though, with No. 1 eater Joey Chestnut joining the fray.

But workers at the Canteen Lunch in the Alley are prepared to serve the contestants. Brenda Dent, manager, said the iconic Ottumwa restaurant is planning on preparing 275 canteens for the contest, which likely means 90-100 pounds of meat. The sandwiches will be loaded onto plates of five, and contestants have to eat everything for the plate to count, even debris, the filling that falls out of the sandwich and onto the plate.

There’ll be extras, too. Dent said the canteens will be topped with ketchup, mustard, light onion and a pickle.

And if the contestants go through more than what’s prepared, the Canteen cooks will be on hand. “If they need more as we go, we’ll prepare more,” Dent said.

It’ll be easy for them to get the sandwiches from the restaurant to the competition, too. The contest has changed locations from Central Park to the Canteen Alley.

“The alley is a lot bigger than everybody thinks,” said Shea Greiner, Ottumwa Chamber director and chairperson of the contest organizing committee. She said the cars that are typically parked in the alley will be cleared out, as well as the lower level of the downtown parking garage. The upper levels, if spaces are open, will allow for a view of the competition as well, she said. “We’d like to see 2,500-3,00 people there.”

And if rain should fall on Ottumwa, as it’s been doing a lot of lately, the contest will move to the cafeteria of Ottumwa High School.

“The contestants, though, will eat in the rain, I’ve been informed multiple times,” Greiner said. “It makes the bun wet and makes it easier consume.”

But the audience may not enjoy watching in the rain. “The prize money is the same, I guess, but we would prefer to have people there,” Greiner said.

Those not in the big competition have their chance to compete for a title as well. JBS is sponsoring a pork chop eating contest at 12:45 p.m. Saturday. “It’s as many pork chops as you can eat in three minutes,” Greiner said. The winner gets a box of bacon, $50 in Chamber bucks and tickets from KIIC. “If you’re interested, contact the chamber office by Friday and we’ll get you hooked up.”

The full line-up for the main event includes both professional and local eaters. Greiner said the local contestants filled out an online application with Major League Eating and randomly selected. “We have nothing to do with it.”

One local eater, however, was invited back by MLE. Mike Johnson is what Greiner called kind of a wild card. “If you remember, he placed fourth last year,” she said.

But there will be one thing everyone will be looking to top, and that’s last year’s record. Greiner thinks that will happen Saturday.

“Joey apparently always exceeds what Gideon does, and he’s very confident he can do about 30,” Greiner said.

Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.


Tracy Goldizen is the Courier's magazine editor, leading production of "Ottumwa Life," the award-winning "Business People" and the Courier's other magazine offerings. She began work with the Courier on the copy desk.