For Anaheim resident Jim Sega and assistant director, all it takes is for someone to see his favorite tattoo of the six he’s connected across his body to start a familiar conversation.
“You’ve got the truck with the burger in the back, so a lot of people see the red truck and then they see the burger in the back there,” Sega told TODAY Food. “They’re like, ‘Okay, that’s really cool. What’s wrong with burgers? This brings me straight to the story.”
On April 13, 2021, Farmer Boys, a California-based fast food chain, held a competition to celebrate its 40th anniversary. To celebrate the restaurant’s 1981 founding in Southern California, the contest was simple: Contestants had to sit down for a tattoo session to get permanent ink somewhere on their body, and choose from three colorful tattoo designs measuring two square inches. Then the new ink can claim his prize: a full year of free burgers.
“You can go once a week to get free food, and I did,” said Hilary Fraser, legal records supervisor in Riverside, California. Frazier is another recipient of a Farmer Boys tattoo and got a mini burger with the Farmer Boys logo above it on her upper thigh. “I tried all the burgers. I have tried all the sandwiches. I wanted to make sure this was my chance to try it all out. So I did.”
Frasier said her order this year was a basic cheeseburger, like her tattoo. While the contest was a way to get free lunch for a year that has since ended, the opportunity to start a lasting conversation at parties was too tempting for her to ignore, especially if anyone who didn’t know her was asking for ink.
“I laugh first,” Frazier said of the tattoo, “just because it’s so funny to me that I did.” “I usually tell people I took a chance. I saw something online, and they offered free cheese tattoos. And I thought, ‘How could I miss that?’ So I walked in.”
Sega said his wife sent him news of a sweepstakes “as a joke,” and that she had no idea he was actually going to get it.
“I thought, shoot: a free burger for a year and a free tattoo?” Sega said. That sentiment was shared by several lottery participants, including Whittier, California resident Ashley Berger.
“I thought the promotion was cool, you know?” Ashley Berger said in an interview with Farmer Boys after she received her ink, which is from a red pickup truck, as part of a contest. “A burger-free year? That looks good.”
In all, 73 separate people ended up getting tattoos in exchange for free food, and received their ink from one of two tattoo parlors in Las Vegas or West Hollywood. Sega, who only ended up losing five or six weeks of his gains, said he finds his tattoo beautiful and that he really loves it.
Both Ceja and Frazier said that even though the deal has since expired and they still have permanent tattoos based on the burger for life, they loved the whole experience and would “definitely” participate again if the restaurant were to hold another contest.
Daisy Alvarez, senior director of marketing for Farmer Boys, told TODAY that while there are no current plans to hold another contest, it’s certainly a possibility discussed by the Farmer Boys team.
Farmer Boys isn’t the only brand that has gone viral for free food gifts in exchange for permanent tattoos. July 17 is National Tattoo Day, which also coincides with National Ice Cream Day. To celebrate the holiday, the ice cream brand’s Drumstick is running a tattoo contest through the end of July for a chance to win prizes for a year’s worth of Drumstick Sundae Cones.
Participants are asked to share an image of either a permanent or temporary tattoo of their signature ice cream cone on Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #DrumstickInk, and while many of the entries have either decorated their skin with temporary tattoos, painted it with a tag or shown one participant loose definitions of what Supposed to be a tattoo, one participant made the candy part of a tattooed sleeve, and joined in the writing and landscape on the biceps. But why would someone go with this tattoo? The answer is obvious: nostalgia.
“Drums are life! I used to take them daily for a few years, until unfortunately I was allergic to peanut butter,” Brett, who took to @fluent4sk on Instagram, said in a direct message to TODAY. “Needless to say the only drumsticks for me right now are in the form of chicken, or Tattoos, of course.”
In May, favorite mayonnaise brand Duke partnered with tattoo shop Yellow Bird Tattoo in Richmond to offer free ink to dozens of people who agreed to the Virginia-based brand’s tattoo terms. Participants who agreed to have ink applied to their arms or legs and got to choose one of 40 different mayonnaise-themed tattoos drawn in a traditional style. Each participant walked away with a new tattoo and one (1) jar of Duke’s Mayonnaise.
The event was so popular that Duke’s had a waiting list of over 1,000 orders and had to order an extra reception at the tattoo parlor in order to deal with the increase in traffic. After the contest, Duke put together some partial tattoos on an Instagram account called dukesmayotattoos.
This does not mean that every one of these competitions runs smoothly. In 1998, San Francisco’s Casa Sanchez offered free lunch for life to anyone with the restaurant’s logo, a young sombrero-clad boy riding a corn rocket, tattooed on their bodies. Thinking no one would ever take it, owner Martha Sanchez hung a sign in the restaurant’s front window…and waited.
They decided to stop offering the deal after 40 separate people had eaten it. Early calculations showed that the contest could cost the restaurant $5.8 million over time.
One man, Greg Teitz, got his tattoos, free food and an unexpected world media tour, and has appeared along the restaurant in stories and interviews in local newspapers on CNN and NPR. Tietze even eventually appeared on German and Chinese television. But he wasn’t the only participant who made his winnings.
“A few years ago, I got a tattoo of the Casa Sanchez logo in order to get a free burrito from the restaurant,” Delia Joyce told TODAY. “I wasn’t the only one. There was a queue of people waiting to get a free tattoo.”
Joyce said she didn’t even have to leave the restaurant to get the tattoo: Casa Sanchez had a table in the back where people could get inked. The restaurant offered the deal again after its original 1998 run in 2010, calling it a “special stimulus,” even though people who got tattooed a second time had two years to get free tacos before 2012, when the restaurant closed the original.
However, Joyce said she believes the trend of food tattoo contests will only last as long as there are foods and brands that people love. When taking a look at the hashtag #foodtattoo# on Instagram, people display their own food ink: Sushi, Dr. Pepper cans, and pink Simpson-style cakes may have meaningful backgrounds, but they may not.
“Tattoos don’t always have to have a deep, deep meaning,” Frazier said, adding that if anyone she might encounter in the future would express an aversion to her Farmer Boys tattoo, she has a response ready in the room.
“I agree,” she said, “I think it’s ridiculous.” “My other tattoos may carry emotional significance, but not all of them.”
Frasier thought of adding a tattoo of a burger with some french fries and a shake, and though the time period her gains are now, she still continues her weekly tradition of eating lunch at the restaurant that she permanently etched on her person.
“It’s okay to have fun with your life,” Fraser said. “I saw this as an opportunity to do something fun for myself. So I say, do you want a silly tattoo? I go after it.”