The sign says it all: “Wintzell’s Oyster-eating Champions.” For on this board of honor at Wintzell’s Oyster House’s 605 Dauphin Street flagship eatery are the names of winners. They are the few, the proud, the oyster-eaters.
No one knows when the contest started or how many vied for the title at the storied restaurant, founded in 1938. “It’s not a formal event,” says Wintzell’s communications and HR manager Clay Omainsky. “It is ongoing. Anyone can walk in, see the record and try to beat it.”
But after gulping 30-plus oysters, most contestants give up and exit the building — sometimes very fast. But not Ken Orndoff.
A Gulf Shores resident, Ken is the current champion. “This place brings back good memories,” the master of mollusks says, standing at the bar while gazing upon the sign that proclaims his record. Ken ate 421 raw oysters within one hour.
About nine years ago, at age 44, Ken lived in Hoover, Alabama. His job required visiting Mobile to meet sales clients for lunch at a favorite restaurant, Wintzell’s Oyster House. On one visit, he read the Wintzell’s contest sign, the same one hanging over the bar today, and thought, “I can do this.”
Back in Hoover, he discussed the matter with wife Wendy. “I told her my plans to return to Mobile and take the Wintzell’s oyster-eating challenge,” recalls Ken. The previous record was set by “Big Joe” Evans at a mere 403 oysters. Ken said to his spouse, “I can top that.”
Devoted wife Wendy looked at the man she loves and very sweetly replied, “I think you’re crazy.” Game on.
After calling ahead, Team Ken entered Wintzell’s on Sept. 11, 2010. “Let’s do it,” he said, as bar attendees shucked several starter trays of naked crustaceans.
The stopwatch clicked and someone shouted — “Go!”
“Many contestants try eating the oysters with crackers,” notes Omainsky, “but that’s a mistake. It fills you up too fast.”
Ken knew better.
The bar attendee shucked oyster after oyster to meet Ken’s demand. Friends, Wintzell’s customers and staff gathered around the bar, cheering him to victory — and then it happened.
Ken ate 399 oysters in 6 minutes and, for some unknown reason, got sick. Let us just say that a multitude of previously eaten oysters received a second chance, involuntarily recycled into a nearby clean garbage container.
Not wanting to be disqualified, he pointed at the vessel holding remnants of second-chance shellfish digested no more, and asked judges, “If I can eat that, does it count?” The ruling was, “Yes.” The contents were scooped into a water glass and swallowed yet again.
Ken continued eating until breaking the record, devouring 421 raw oysters in 34 minutes. “It’s all about speed,” he says, offering oyster-eating pearls of wisdom. “Don’t look up, and eat faster than your brain can tell what your stomach is doing.”
Commenting on Ken’s success, Omainsky noted, “I have been with Wintzell’s officially about six years. In that time, only a few have attempted to break Ken’s record.” None successfully.
For those who break the record, Wintzell’s pays for oysters consumed and awards a $25 check.
As for Ken? “It was fun, but I doubt I would do it again if my record is broken,” he laughs. Upon winning the title, he celebrated the next day by revisiting Wintzell’s Oyster House and ordering a plate of — you guessed it — raw oysters.
Now it’s your turn. Want to try? Here are the rules:
- Oysters must be raw and prepared on-site at Wintzell’s.
- All oysters must be eaten at Wintzell’s bar.
- All oysters must be eaten within 60 minutes.
- The contest recognizes Overall Champion, Men’s Champion and Lady’s Champion (currently Beth Carter Larrimore at 215).
Wintzell’s Oyster House | wintzellsoysterhouse.com