Food challenge turns deadly at Voodoo Doughnut shop

DENVER -- There are new questions about the safety of competitive eating after a popular food challenge turned deadly at a Denver doughnut shop.

Travis Malouff died early Sunday morning inside the lobby of Voodoo Doughnut on East Colfax Avenue. His mother, Kay, said her son was out having fun with his friends when he decided to attempt the Tex-Ass Challenge.

The Tex-Ass is a half-pound glazed doughnut made from the batter that would go into half a dozen regular-sized doughnuts. Customers have to consume it in 80 seconds to win their money back.

The man’s mother said his friends performed the Heimlich maneuver and CPR but were not able to free the doughnut. Malouff was pronounced dead around 2 a.m.

Also Sunday, Caitlin Nelson, a 20-year-old student at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, choked and died during a pancake-eating contest during Greek Week.

“People don’t think about the hazards of an eating contest until it’s too late,” former Denver area competitive eater Bryan Beard said.

Beard said there is a dark side to the world of competitive eating that is often overlooked.

“I’ve choked to the point where I had to reach down and pull it out of my throat,” he said. "Every competitive eater has choked. It happens.”

There is a big difference between sanctioned professional eating contests and many local food challenges, including Voodoo’s Tex-Ass Challenge.

“You’re not allowed to do any eating unless there was medical personnel present and that’s because it’s all about safety first. Safety is a big thing when it comes to the world of major league eating,” Beard said.

According to the Colorado Restaurant Association, Colorado does not require restaurant staff to be trained in CPR, first aid or the Heimlich maneuver. There are no additional state-mandated safety requirements in the case of an eating competition.

Some restaurants require customers to sign a waiver before participating in an eating challenge. It is unclear if Voodoo had Malouff sign a waiver.

“As an eater, you do understand what you’re getting yourself into,” Beard said. “But you don’t think of it when you’re entering these contests. You’re like, I can eat this doughnut in 80 seconds. Absolutely.”

“Our hearts go out to the Malouff family during this very difficult time," Voodoo said in a statement. "We have suspended the eating challenge in all our locations. While this matter is under investigation, we believe it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Beard said he hopes people will not be discouraged from entering eating contests. Instead, he hopes to educate the public on safe practices.

Even though it’s a cliche, his best advice is to not bite off more than you can chew. You should keep your cheeks clear of food at all times and only take another bite after you’ve swallowed the previous bite.

He also suggests you keep plenty of water around to wash food down.

Lastly, have a conversation with restaurant staff and others to make sure someone knows how to help properly if you do begin choking.