WFC is the brain child of local entrepreneur Mike McCloud

Cookeville – The World Food Championships (WFC) has become the world’s largest food sport competition. Think March Madness meets the culinary world.

The brainchild of local entrepreneur Mike McCloud, WFC is now in its 11th year, and last week it announced a strategic partnership with IMG, a global leader in sports events, media and entertainment. Following the merger, IMG is now a significant minority partner in WFC with a focus on accelerating the competition’s growth and international strategy.

“By partnering with a global powerhouse like IMG, we now have the ability to launch exciting Food Sport attractions on a global stage,” said McCloud, the founder of World Food Championships. “Together, we look forward to showcasing the talent, passion and creativity of our culinary champions, while also creating new culinary experiences for those who celebrate, enjoy and appreciate elevated yet unpretentious food.”

McCloud says all the hard work is worth the reward.

“It’s a lot like seeing your child accomplish a big milestone,” McCloud told the Upper Cumberland Business Journal. “The amount of pride and pleasure you witness certainly make up for all the hard work and humbling moments you experience. Turns out that forging ahead with a new business concept is also a lot like parenting – you don’t always have the answers or the handy how-to manual to show you the way.”

As is life, adaptation and perseverance are key.

“So many times, during the evolution of your idea, you simply have to be willing to adapt and adopt new ideas or find a new path to reach your destination,” he said. “The key is staying focused on that destination, no matter how many curve balls you have to face or detours you have to take.”

WFC annually tracks more than 15,000 cooks in over 800 cooking competitions. Over 300 official teams are then invited to compete across 12 food categories over five days of intense Food Sport in Dallas, Texas. The 12 category winners then compete at a customized Final Table for a $300,000 prize purse and to become the next World Food Champion. 

It has become a food destination for rising stars and celebrity chefs, including “Famous Dave” Anderson, Myron Mixon, Moe Cason, Katie Dixon, Chris Lilly, Jay Ducote, Emily Ellyn, Marcel Vigneron, Kent Rathbun, Erica Roby, Sunny Lynn, Eric Gephart and many more.

The idea came in a flash at a meeting 13 years ago that would plant the seed for the future of a company.

“We were in one of our staff brainstorming sessions in 2010, after a long weekend at a bbq event,” said McCloud. “And one of our team members simply asked, “Why isn’t there a multi-genre Super Bowl event for food?” We all just stopped and took that in for a minute. And almost immediately we went to work on what that might look like. Two years later, we launched our first WFC in Las Vegas with about a dozen celebrity chefs and over 200 competing teams. It was an absolute game changer for our company.”

Once the pilot was lit, the next step was figuring out how it would work.

“It took at least 100 meetings to figure it out,” said McCloud. “From genres of food, how to score them fairly against one another, to rules of the game – we had to draw from everything we had learned in BBQ, Chili contests and even non-food sporting events like March Madness, the NFL and more. I think our first rules book was about 30 pages. And even that wasn’t enough! We learned so much as our “first game” was played in Las Vegas. And now, after every event, we go into review mode to determine what tweaks and enhancements we need or want to make to the event so that “Food Sport” continues to improve and evolve.”

The two companies (IMG and WFC) will initially focus on increasing international participation and exposure via media deals, as well as elevating the fan experience at the competitions, to eventually launch new WFC-branded events for key culinary destinations across the globe, according to a release by IMG. 

“World Food Championships is a dynamic, enthralling competition series that has proven its ability to captivate audiences around the world and unearth some of today’s most exciting new culinary talents,” said Stephanie Calape, Managing Director of Culinary Events at IMG. “We believe this is the perfect time to elevate WFC into a global series that celebrates talent and culinary creations from different regions and communities. We are delighted to partner with WFC and look forward to helping them unleash their vast potential.” 

Food Sport is not your typical business venture. McCloud says he thinks of it in two dimensions: operations and optics.

“What does everyone see and what do they NOT need to see,” said McCloud. “How do we make the event unfold as smoothly as possible, given that there will always be surprises and hiccups. If our operational game plan can anticipate at least 80% of what will unfold during the event, then we know we can manage the other 20% and deliver a great experience for both our competitors and consumers.”

Since its debut in 2012, WFC has amassed a large worldwide following, providing a one-of-a-kind culinary experience at events, as well as numerous live and made-for-TV shows. This year’s qualifiers have seen a 25% increase in international participation, ahead of the 2023 competition, which takes place Nov. 8-12 at the iconic Fair Park in Dallas.

Panel – Judges taste test at a competition.

In addition to popularizing competitive cooking, the WFC platform has had an undeniable impact on the food industry, facilitating the creation of more than 10,000 new dishes and supporting communities via partnerships with various local nonprofits and charities, such as North Texas Foodbank and Dallas College.

The journey from start up to global competitor has been arduous. Both the Upper Cumberland community and his experience building his “primary business” has helped forge the way forward.

“Building my primary business, MMA Creative, over the past three decades in the Upper Cumberland was the perfect foundation to what we are about to experience,” admitted McCloud. “It has always been amazing to me to see how people I know, right here in this region, can take a small idea and make it huge. There are tons of creative, resourceful, enterprising and motivating entrepreneurs in the UC. I’ve been fortunate in my career to help many of them with advertising and marketing concepts. So in many ways, I believe that my company has had a front-row seat to business success, and when it came time for us to apply what we know for ourselves, we were unafraid and able to move forward with corporate confidence.”

MMA creative isn’t going anywhere, according to McCloud.

“For three decades, we have had a great team of creatives here who have been able to participate in or assist on, numerous causes and opportunities right here in the Upper Cumberland,” he said. “The deal with IMG doesn’t require me to shutter that resource, which I’m very happy about. So, for example, we will continue to publish the Upper Cumberland Business Journal and occasionally, get involved in initiatives or other company projects that we find worthy and rewarding.”

What is the best part of McCloud’s job?

“Two things: first, meeting incredibly passionate and talented chefs throughout the world (and trust me, that includes home cooks!). Second, getting to eat their food. I have heard it said many times that cooking is like a special language of love. And there’s nothing I enjoy more than experiencing that type of love.”

Amen to that. As for the competitions? 

“It’s the experience,” he said. “When you combine the incredible passion of a competitive cook with the art of their creative dishes, it’s like a core memory. You simply don’t forget it, and you crave more of it. 

The Merger with IMG is a match made in heaven. IMG says it hopes to use its resources to leverage its expertise in developing improvement and global cultural experiences such as Taste Festivals, Frieze art fairs, New York Fashion Week: The Shows, and Vivid Food at Vivid Sydney and to expand WFC’s global footprint.

“The deal is incredible,” admitted McCloud. “Not only did it accomplish personal objectives I have been thinking about for a long time, but it has fortified our corporate goal of turning an event into a platform. From new talent we now have access to, to resources and global reach that we now get to lean into, being partnered with IMG and its parent company, Endeavor, will open more doors and avenues to success that I simply couldn’t imagine.” 

For McCloud, the journey is just beginning. Where does he go from here? 

“I go to work on a whole new level,” he said. “In many ways, it’s like a new chapter is about to be written. And if my instincts are right, then this chapter is the one that makes WFC a household name throughout the world. We truly can scale and establish WFC as the American Idol of food.” 

McCloud’s instincts have been pretty good so far. Who are we to doubt him now?

Photos courtesy of World Food Championships.

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