Billed as “the ultimate food fight,” the World Food Championships (WFC) is the largest competition in food sport, where culinary competitors of previous events convene for a chance at winning the ultimate food crown and a share of hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money. The event is also the springboard for many up and coming culinary stars and home cooks as they seek TV fame through food shows and acting opportunities.
In 2021, WFC attracted more than 1,500 cooks from 42 states and six countries during the tournament's search for the best cooks and artisans from around the globe. While more than 17,000 foodies watched and enjoyed the heat of the battle unfold in 10 official categories in person, WFC garnered more than three billion media impressions in 2020-21.
Since its debut in 2012, WFC has given birth to 30+ TV food stars, awarded more than $3 million in prize money, had 49 of the 50 states compete, garnered more than 10 billion media impressions, and connected 175+ food brands with food fans, food bloggers, and food media.
This year’s WFC will be held in Dallas from November 9-13.
Sports Destination Management: The World Food Championships has been incredibly successful. How did it get started?
Mike McCloud: When I first started, I was working with a marketing agency, and we were publicizing the Kansas City Barbecue Society. It occurred to me that we could make a side business of food sports. At first, I was putting about 10 percent of my time into the WFC. I eventually exited the marketing business and put all my eggs in the food sport basket with the idea of turning it into a full-scale platform for chefs, retail and entertainment. Over the years, it has turned into a homecoming for returning chefs year over year where people see their friends and learn about the latest trends.
SDM: What is the business model?
McCloud: It’s kind of a Rubik’s Cube of competitive cooking with a lot of moving parts and we’ve gotten pretty good at it over the years. I’d describe it as having a three-dimensional growth plan:
1 – We are hosting more qualifiers and seeing more chef interest in getting into those qualifiers;
2 – We have made it tougher and more interesting, more of a culinary gauntlet each year;
3 – We have focused on making it stronger operationally and more of a platform that works year-round rather than just leading up to the event.
What’s so cool about this event is that an average person can get on the 50-yard line of the biggest and best event of the industry. They have to earn their way there as a chef, but they can get there. I will never step on a Major League Baseball home plate and play, even though I was good. But I can put people up next to Gordon Ramsey and the next thing you know, they’re popping up on Top Chef Barbecue Brawl.
SDM: How many people are involved?
McCloud: Well, our nucleus is between 1,500 and 2,000 cooks who make up the 300 teams that compete annually. We limit our team count to 300 now, with 30 teams in each category: Bacon, Barbecue, Burger, Dessert, Rice and Noodle, Sandwich, Seafood, Soup, Steak and Vegetarian. Then we have a good 400 people who are certified judges and another 200 to 300 on the event side, working on operations. That’s about 2,000 overall.
SDM: How come you capped attendance in teams?
McCloud: One thing we have learned is that 30 teams was a great number based on the time it takes to cook, turn in entries, judge them and then flip the kitchen and have it ready for the next category. We also have some ancillary activities like a high school barbecue competition, a grilling granny competition – fun things that take our team count up.
SDM: What about spectators?
McCloud: Anywhere from 15,000 to 25,000.
SDM: You are currently in Dallas. Does the event move around, or do you like to stay in one spot?
McCloud: We’re in our third year of a three-year contract with Dallas and within the next few months, we’ll be deciding whether to renew that or to choose another one of the cities that are bidding on hosting the championship.
SDM: Is this an indoor event or an outdoor event?
McCloud: In 2021, we took our kitchen arena, which includes 30 complete competition cells with ovens, microwaves, prep tables and other equipment, and put it all inside. Up until then, everything was held outside. We had to build a tent city. We have faced every single ire Mother Nature could come up with – dust storms, wind, heat, humidity, coolness. When we decided to move things inside, we had to get permits for the ovens. The only things that stay outside are now the barbecue and steak competitions since those need grills.
SDM: What kind of a facility are you looking for?
McCloud: We really have to find the right place with the right venues. Right now, we take up 90,000 square feet indoors and 100,000 square feet outdoors. We also want a great partner who will work with us from a funding and marketing standpoint. After that, we want ease of access for our competitors, spectators, and of course, for all the companies that need to bring in the ingredients we use. Dallas has been an ideal host for us; it’s also one of the top ten media markets.
SDM: When do you announce the next site?
McCloud: We like to announce at the first awards night.
SDM: How does the competition work? Can anyone enter?
McCloud: Communities host what we call gateway qualifiers in the different categories. There are 50 qualifiers – one in each state, and you have to win there in order to advance.
SDM: Have the categories changed over the years?
McCloud: Every year, we have a little change. This year, we’ll have a vegetarian category and a rice and noodles category. We base our changes on what is going on in the marketplace or on trends that need extra attention or that can no longer be ignored. For example, the rice and noodles category came about because we wanted to get more cultures represented in the championship; this gives us a more Asian influence. We’re working with our other partners on other categories.
SDM: How does the competition work, in terms of ingredients?
McCloud: In each category, we provide an ingredient; that is provided as part of a sponsorship agreement. We look for up-and-coming brands that will be a good fit with what we want to achieve. When we do our qualifiers, we look for more regional brands – local beers, eggs, fruit, produce, etc.
SDM: Is there a lot of competition to become a sponsor?
McCloud: Oh, yes – as soon as the sponsorship on a particular category is locked up, we have to stop conversations with other brands; we play the exclusive card really well, and we want our sponsors to get the most benefit they can as well.
SDM: How did COVID affect you?
McCloud: Before COVID hit, we had chefs coming in from 15 to 20 countries a year. In 2021, that number went down; this year, we’ll probably be back up to about 15 countries.
In 2020, we had a virtual WFC – it was not a full-scale championship. We probably put about $100,000 into the virtual competition just to keep the industry stoked and motivated. We had a lot of online cooking challenges where the chef not only took a picture of the dish but told us what was special about it and gave us the recipe. I had an ambassador counsel of super chefs that analyzed the recipes, thought through the steps and were able to reward someone for coming up with something clever – or detract from someone who made it up. They were able to sniff out bogus or legit recipes, believe me.
SDM: COVID was hard on the hospitality industry as a whole.
McCloud: Chefs have had a rough time – COVID hurt the industry and people are still having a hard time getting back. Ingredients are costing more; competition teams are driving less or not as far – it has been a hard road back for many of them to get to qualifying events. If I could tell destinations one thing, it’s this: Bringing a qualifier to your city is something that helps the culinary industry right now. It’s like a major thank-you to the culinary scene that needs all the help it can get.
SDM: If someone would like to host a gateway championship, how should they get in touch?
McCloud: They can shoot me an e-mail.
Editor's note: The e-mail address is found at the top of this article
SDM: What are the figures for economic impact and the room night use at the WFC?
McCloud: It varies but we have had between $4 million and $5 million in economic impact, and used more than 5,000 room nights.
SDM: Do you think people get the idea of being a competitive chef from watching WFC?
McCloud: We certainly are seeing a lot of interest on the social media side, such as on our Facebook Live cook-along demos. As far as getting into our main event, I don’t think it has a direct affect. I do think food sport is aspirational; people catch the bug and enter a recipe contest or dabble in a local chili cook-off or a cast-iron skillet competition. I’d say, though, that maybe .01 percent will actually go on to be competitors here. That being said, the event has still been very positive. It has raised awareness of the food industry, brought attention to a plethora of great products, raised the profiles of some great chefs – all things that are complementary to our strategy of growth.
SDM: What’s the most exciting moment of the competition?
McCloud: Oh, without a doubt, it’s the turn-in moment. Everyone loves watching the cooking and following their favorite chefs, everyone loves sampling the food, but the touchdown moment is when the chefs are running to the turn-in table with a silver platter of food. We have throngs of people gathered there to watch the beauty of that moment. It’s phenomenal what they have been able to accomplish. It is nothing less than magic.