A Publication of WTVP

The Gluttony Games

by Phil Luciano |
Bob Tieman of Peru is all smiles shortly before attempting Tony’s Butt Buster Food Challenge.
Bob Tieman of Peru is all smiles shortly before attempting Tony’s Butt Buster Food Challenge.

Tony’s Butt Shack in Hollowayville has earned quite a following with its lip-smackin’, competitive-eatin’ contests

For years, Tony’s Butt Shack BBQ & Catering in Hollowayville made a solid name for itself throughout the Illinois valley.

Satisfied customers kept coming back again and again for the smoked meats, bulging burgers and heaping sides — all not only plentiful but delicious.

More than 35 minutes later, a miserable Tieman taps out of the challenge

Then came 2022, when the tiny-town operation snagged global-stage attention. Tony’s Butt Buster Challenge — gobble seven pounds of grub in 45 minutes — has prompted visits from professional eaters and sparked hundreds of thousands of social-media clicks among competitive-eating fans. But online videos and photos don’t do justice to the massiveness of the challenge, said co-owner Tony Vacarro.

“When we bring it to the table, it looks nothing like the picture,” Vacarro said. “It is overwhelming once you actually see it in real life.

“I think they second-guess themselves immediately at that point.”

From humble beginnings, global aspirations

About nine years ago, Tony and wife Heather Vacarro opened their first Butt Shack in the LaSalle County village of Mendota. Almost a year later, the business relocated to a bigger burg, Peru. After five successful years there, the Vacarros were approached by a gent wanting to sell a shuttered supper club in Hollowayville.

Tony and Heather Vacarro pause behind the bar at Tony’s Butt Shack BBQ & Catering, which makes its home inside a former ’40s-era supper club
Tony and Heather Vacarro pause behind the bar at Tony’s Butt Shack BBQ & Catering, which makes its home inside a former ’40s-era supper club

At first, the old ag and mining town seemed desolate. Hollowayville — which otherwise claims just one tavern, one church and 36 residents — is one of the smallest incorporated municipalities in the state. But then Tony Vacarro noticed all the traffic out front along U.S. Route 6, which connects Princeton, Spring Valley, LaSalle, Peru and Ottawa (as well as the Quad Cities and Chicago, California and Massachusetts). Plus, he liked the look and feel of the ‘40s-era supper club.

“Heather and I came out here and it just fit, it just clicked,” Tony Vacarro said.

So, three years ago, they bustled the Butt Shack over to Hollowayville. Customers old and new flocked to the place for not just smoked meats, thick sandwiches and homemade pizzas, but innovations such as the fried potato salad.

And then came the fateful night when Vacarro’s softball team visited the eatery for post-game beers and chow. At one point, a far-ranging conversation veered toward competitive eating, and the group suggested the Butt Shack should start a food challenge.

“They said, ‘You know what would be fun?’ And there it went,” Tony Vacarro said. “And they just kind of created it. And it came out and it just exploded.”

Thus was born Tony’s Butt Buster Food Challenge: seven pounds of pulled pork, smoked brisket, ribs, mac and cheese, fried potato salad, cornbread muffins and a meatloaf sandwich. Do that in 45 minutes or less, and you get a t-shirt, along with a waving of the $59 price tag. Plus, you get your name on the Wall of Fame — so far accomplished just thrice, and only by pros.

Competitive eating goes corporate

Competitive eating has become big business. The big daddy of contests, the July 4 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, garners more than a million TV viewers. Many professionals belong to Major League Eating, a worldwide organization that oversees 70 major contests, many of which boast corporate sponsorships.

Some pros motor about the United States, doing local contests to promote their names and brands on YouTube. But professionals want more than just to beat the clock. They seek to set speed records at each stop. Their fans follow along on social media, gobbling up their exploits.

“It’s almost like its own universe right now,” Vacarro said. “There’s people traveling the country and the world doing these food challenges to best the one who did it before.”

The online clicks bring big attention to small places. Worldwide, more than a million people have taken glimpses into the Butt Shack, thanks to guests such as pro eater Randy Santel, who has more than 1.5 million YouTube followers. His stop at the Butt Shack last June, when he finished the challenges in just under 40 minutes, has sparked almost 400,000 YouTube hits.

Ever more impressive was the visit a month later by another pro, Joel Hansen. He not only did the challenge in a ridiculous time of 12:53 — that’s more than a pound of food per minute — but then completed a second challenge within the allotted time. That video has brought almost 600,000 viewers to the Butt Shack.

Not for the faint of heart … or stomach

A less conspicuous attempt there was made recently by Bob Tieman, 39, a Peru alderman. He is not a pro eater; he is a tax preparer. But at 6-feet-1 and 310 pounds, Tieman — a member of the softball team that originally suggested the contest — thought he might have a decent shot at completing the challenge.

Shortly beforehand, though sounding a wee intimidated, he said, “I haven’t eaten in 24 hours, so hopefully that helps.”

Initially, Tieman’s effort looked promising. Like the pros, he focused first on meat, which is easier to down than the heavy carbs. At the 8-minute mark, things were going so smoothly he even asked for hotter hot sauce.

A minute later, he looked to be about halfway done with the mammoth meal. Thereafter, he began to hit the wall.

Looking over his shoulder, Vacarro told a Facebook livestream audience, “It’s a good effort right now. He’s breathing a little heavy. I see a little sweat. I’m not sure how it’s gonna play out.”

Tieman hung in there until 35:49. He exhaled hard, then said quietly, “I’m sorry. But I gotta tap out.”

He slowly trundled into an adjacent room to get some air.

“I think I’m gonna keep it down,” he said. “That’s the goal.”

Mission accomplished on a valiant effort. Plus, as a consolation prize, he had plenty of leftovers to take home in a doggie bag.

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP. He can be reached at [email protected]