Curly’s July Fourth hot dog givesway shows value of marketing flexibility

For 10 years before the pandemic, Curly’s Frozen Custard – located at 4017 Camp Bowie in Fort Worth – created extreme excitement with its own Nathan’s FamousHot Dog Chomp-etition.

The newspapers wrote about the annual affair and News/Talk WBAP 820 conducted live interviews with Curly’s founder/managing partner Bourke Harvey each year. The event attracted the attention of the local TV stations with their own version of must-see TV.

The contest was an effort by Harvey when he changed hot dog brands on June 30 in 2011. He reached out to Nathan’s Famous and received permission to conduct his own hot dog-eating contest, but with his own intention tweaks.

TV reporters covered the local event as an attachment to the national championship at Coney Island, where defending champion Joey Chestnut devours just short of a zillion hot dogs each July 4.

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The stations would deliver the narrative following the Nathan’s Famous competition at Coney Island with, “Meanwhile, in Fort Worth, Curly’s Frozen Custard held its annual Nathan’s Famous event, and the Grand Masters champion was…”

Unlike the Coney Island event that featured professional eater/athletes (yes, these competitors call themselves “athletes”!), Curly’s timed competitors here in Ft. Worth as they slammed down four quarter-pound hot dogs – with massively thick buns!

Interestingly enough, many contestants could eat three hot dogs very quickly but the fourth one, with the gourmet bun, made the challenge, well, massive. It was not unusual to see a contestant eating the first three in just a couple of minutes, only to still be chomping on the fourth hot dog three minutes later.

The contest was a hit, but as country music superstar Kenny Rogers said in his song, The Gambler: You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.

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So, on the Fourth of July holiday in 2020, Bourke Harvey decided to do something different, something that would be safe and honor social distancing guidelines amid the pandemic: He offered free hot dogs to the first 200 customers on July 4 with no purchase necessary . There was a limit of one free hot dog per person.

These were the same quarter-pound Nathan’s Famous with the thick brioche bun that competitors ate in the original local contest.

The transition was an enormous success. With concerns still lingering about social/public gatherings last year, Harvey repeated the free hot dog offer. Again, the customers loved the opporunity to enjoy the “official hot dog of summer” for free.

When considering how to proceed this summer with events opening back up to crowds, Harvey decided to continue the 200 free hot dogs and drop the contest. “We have received so much positive feedback throughout the past two years that customers appreciated a free hot dog on our nation’s birthday that we will continue the 200 free hot dogs,” he said. “In this way, we’re benefiting 200 guests instead of the few dozen contestants.”

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Delighted customers praised the decision:

  • “It’s just so perfect – we attend our neighborhood July 4th parade and then come over to Curly’s.”
  • “This is such a wonderful way to celebrate our nation’s birthday. It may be a small gesture to Curly’s, but it’s a really big deal to us as your neighbors.”
  • “We’ve created a new family tradition – coming over to Curly’s on the 4th!”

Customers always flock to Curly’s for its Parker County Peach frozen custard in July, so there’s an extra reason to visit on July 4.

Business lessons learned:

  • Recognize when changes forced during the pandemic or other disruptive events can lead to enhanced customer engagement.
  • Understand that sometimes a series of events runs its course and needs something fresh and new.
  • Realize that touching more of your customers is more beneficial to all concerned.

The Curly’s experience with July Fourth innovation highlights two timesless questions for business operators, large and small: What are some sacred cows in your company that need to be revisited and possibly re-imagined? And how can you redeploy your assets to make the new version even more interesting and successful?

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