Five hours before Joey Chestnut hoisted the surfboard crowning him the Hooters World Wing Eating Champion of 2013, three men tied on orange aprons and primed their game faces.
For them, Thursday's competition was a test of skill, technique and timing. It was a race against the clock to fry nearly 4,000 wings and keep them hot for 16 competitors who would barely taste them.
"It's all good," mused Dave Hildenbrand, 50, a quality control manager from Hooters Corporate. "It's great when people eat your food. It's when they leave some behind that you get mad."
At 3 p.m., Sadeek Morgan, 30, kitchen coordinator at Hooters Channelside, walked into the back door of the Original Hooters restaurant on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater. He'd already worked since 9 a.m. at his own store before he made the drive across the bay. He headed to the fryers and started work again until it was showtime.
The target: 3,200 by 6:30 p.m.
"I'm not worried," he said. "We've done it before."
At 5 p.m., it was time to test the man.
Pete Jacobs, 40, kitchen coordinator of the North Tampa Hooters, shuttled out a box of raw wings. Morgan seasoned them and dropped them in the fryer.
When they were done with the first batch, Jacobs collected the mass of 300 wings and shuttled them into a second room in the Hooters kitchen — out of the way of the 10 cooks and dishwashers keeping the restaurant's packed house fed.
Tony Metzler, 25, the youngest kitchen coordinator of the group, from the Fourth Street Hooters in St. Pete, dropped the piping hot wings in a bowl, poured a single ladle of sauce on them and tossed them several times to coat. Jacobs grabbed the sauced wings, poured them in pan, put on a piece of foil and put them in a warmer.
Hildenbrand stepped in to help cover the wings and keep count as the raw wings were coming out the fridge. They were a machine — quick, efficient, in synch.
At 5:38 p.m., they had cooked and sauced 1,900 wings.
The competitive eaters arrived and the pool of fans and gawkers grew to fill the Hooters parking lot.
"During the Super Bowl, the line at our store usually stretches out the door for pickup before game time," Jacobs said.
Morgan said the Transitions Championship golf tournament has him standing over a fryer nonstop from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.
At 6:02 p.m., Jacobs carried the last box of 400 wings out from the fridge and into the prep station.
At 6:22, all the wings in foil pans were loaded onto a rolling metal table and Hildenbrand and Metzler furiously poked holes in the foil to let out the steam.
Hildenbrand was proud of his guys. They'd done it well.
"Put on clean aprons," he told them. "Go out there like it never happened."
As they rolled the table up to the officials who were weighing the bowls to make sure each eater had exactly 20 pounds, camera phones sounded all around them but most amateur photographers were only capturing the wings.
The chefs didn't mind.
Chestnut devoured their efforts, winning by eating 179 wings in 10 minutes, more than 30 better than his win from last year.
The crowd was amazed at his feat, but never questioned where the wings came from.
"It takes a lot of work to make something look casual," Hildenbrand said.