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A Free Steak Dinner? Yep, But It’s a Challenge
By Tom Adkinson

AMARILLO, Texas – Restaurateur Bobby Lee doesn’t mind losing bets. That’s because he’s the real winner no matter what.

big texan free steak dinner challenge
The famous Big Texan cowboy towers above I-40 in Amarillo. The restaurant’s first site was along Route 66. Image by Tom Adkinson.
  bobby lee
Every time the Big Texan’s Bobby Lee loses a 72-ounce free steak bet, the restaurant gets more publicity. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Bobby and his brother, Danny, are the second generation at the Big Texan Steak Ranch and Brewery to bet hungry travelers through West Texas that they can’t finish one of their special steak dinners.

Their father, RJ, started the Big Texan’s now-famous 72-ounce steak challenge soon after opening his steakhouse in 1960. RJ had watched hungry cowboys challenge each other to eating contests, so he carried that concept to another level.

He challenged – or dared – anyone to consume a 72-ounce steak (that’s 4.5 pounds), a shrimp cocktail, a salad and a dinner roll in one hour. Do that, and your meal is free. Fail, and you pay up. Today, the price of failure is $72 – but you do get to take home the leftovers.

There are strict rules, and #6 should give you a hint that it doesn’t always go well: “Should you become ill, the contest is over. YOU LOSE. (Please use the container provided if necessary.)

texan challenger
The 60-minute clock counts down as a challenger starts on 72 ounces of beef, a salad, a shrimp cocktail and a roll. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Over the decades, 100,000 people have accepted the challenge, but, as Bobby Lee says, “Only a few have joined the world’s most exclusive club.” The list of the most recent winners’ names posted on the restaurant’s walls actually is impressive, but realize that about 25 people a week try to join the club.

The Big Texan serves about 3,000 people a day from a menu full of great steak choices, and about three times a day, patrons get to watch someone accept the 72-ounce challenge. It’s quite a show.

A barker hollers for attention and invites everyone to cheer on the challenger. The challenger is seated at a table on a low stage in the middle of the restaurant directly in front of the open grill and right below a countdown electronic clock. A bell rings, the clock starts winding down and the face stuffing begins.

Far more often than not, the once-confident challenger fades. His or her facial expression changes, the fork-to-mouth pace slows down, eyes get glassy. It’s all over except for the aluminum foil to wrap up the uneaten beef.

texan steaks
Most guests at the Big Texan order steaks of more modest size than the 72-ounce challenge whopper. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Once, Bobby Lee made a special show of a challenge. The stage was set up outdoors, television cameras were rolling and a crowd assembled to see whether Molly Schuyler could win the bet. Five thousand dollars were on the line.

Schuyler, whom Lee said weighs about 125 pounds, attacked with the gusto of a hungry hound. The spectacle was nothing Miss Manners would have condoned. Schuyler, not one to bother with utensils, scarfed down the whole meal in four minutes, but she didn’t stop there. Nine minutes later, the second meal disappeared. Twenty minutes after that, a third meal was gone.

Just as when a regular patron wins the bet and talks about the feat forever, the Lee brothers didn’t mind at all when Schuyler carried the day. The publicity far outweighed three steaks, nine shrimp, three salads, three dinner rolls and $5,000.

The ongoing 72-ounce challenge, abundant outdoor advertising and hyped activities such as Schuyler’s feast have meant RJ’s restaurant has grown into an institution that now includes a roadside motel with an Old West theme, an RV park and a festival site.

“We’re not marketing geniuses. We know food and beverage. We just let it happen,” Bobby Lee said.

Trip-planning resources: and

Published September 20, 2018

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