ASTORIA — The battle of the bulge is brewing in Queens.
Astoria bar Hell Gate Social is challenging its regular barflies to shed their beer bellies this summer during its third annual Great Astoria Gut-Off — or as the event's Facebook page describes it, "who could do the best job getting sweet six pack abs."
Contestants pay $100 to enter the competition, and have from Memorial Day to Labor Day to shape up and lose the flab. On Sept. 2, an audience at the bar will vote for a winner, and the man deemed the fittest takes home the prize money, which this year topped out at $1,100.
"I think it's really funny to laugh at guys' beer bellies," said Hell Gate Social bartender Sal Milazzo, who started the Gut-Off two summers ago when he made a bet with a friend to see who could get more toned by fall.
"We were both just out of shape, we had our beer bellies, so we said, 'I'll bet you $100 that I can get a better six pack than you,'" Milazzo recalled. "A bunch of people overheard it, and it turned into a thing."
Milazzo said he did it again the next year, mostly as a lighthearted tactic to draw more visitors to the bar. Located at 12-21 Astoria Blvd., Hell Gate is off the beaten path from Astoria's more popular dining and drinking spots.
"It's kind of a far, out-of-the-way bar. The best way to get people there is to do ridiculous things," Milazzo said.
But last year's competition — documented online in an epic 26-minute YouTube video — grew to 20 contestants, many of whom took the competition as a serious opportunity to better themselves.
Last year's winner, Hell Gate Social regular Andy Sydor, 50, dropped a whopping 75 pounds during the Gut-Off.
"I was pretty heavy — technically, I was obese," said Sydor, who said he signed up for the contest at Milazzo's urging after his doctor told him he had an enlarged heart and needed to lose weight.
He spent the summer tracking his calories and working out, swimming laps at Astoria Park Pool, hiking and kayaking. By the time the contest ended on Labor Day, he'd gone from 235 pounds to a slim 160.
"My clothes were hanging off of me," he said. "I needed new belts."
Sydor has stuck to his new workout and healthy eating regiment, and has since managed to keep the weight off. He credits Hell Gate Social and the Gut-Off with giving him the motivation to make the change.
"This is a rather tight-[knit] community out here...people were very supportive," he said. "This community, it sort of kept you going. And you're kind of in public, so you didn’t want to publicly fail."
This summer, 11 people are competing for Sydor's crown, including James Parkinson, an Astoria comedian and author who's entering the Gut-Off for the second time after losing out last year.
"I'm tracking everything this year. I've got myself using various Internet apps," said Parkinson, 32. His plan includes regular workouts and cutting down on carbs.
"I'm starting with a juice cleanse, and I'm ending with a juice cleanse. Hopefully some abdominal muscles will materialize," he said.
Milazzo said for most participants, it's not just about the prize money.
"One guy is going to win but — it sounds cheesy — everybody's going to win," he said. "You take care of yourself. You change your life."
He's prepared to lose out on bar tips this summer as a few of his best customers will likely cut out booze for a chance to take the Gut-Off title.
"They still hang out," he said. "But they come and they have club soda."