At the Polish Falcons Hall in Depew, N.Y., one recent Saturday night, five women sat in the center of the crowd mulling the prizes on offer: pork tenderloin, top round roast, Italian sausage. Handcrafted meat-shaped dog chew toys dangled from colorful beads around their necks. Asked what they wanted to win, they exclaimed in unison, "everything!" as they eagerly waved plastic clappers and squeezed squeaking chew toys.
It's Buffalo Bills football season. It's Buffalo Sabres hockey season. But the game that's really sweeping Buffalo and its suburbs is the meat raffle. In the second weekend of November alone, there were at least 20 meat raffles in the area funding charities or pee-wee sports leagues. That Saturday night, at two events in Depew and Cheektowaga within a 10-minute drive from one another, nearly 600 people came out.
"We're right in the middle of it right now," said Erick Hansen, describing what could be deemed meat raffle season in Western New York. Hansen, who is the creator of MeatRaffles.com, said events here reach a crescendo from mid-October until Thanksgiving, take a holiday break, then pick up again from January right through to springtime.
The latest fad? A chance to win a freezer filled with meat. While regular raffle tickets cost $1, getting in on the freezer action usually sets gamblers back $5.
Mike Balling and his friends perched a homemade "Horrible Vegans" team sign on their table at the meat raffle at the Knights of Columbus in Cheektowaga. Balling, who said he might spend as much as $150 on raffle tickets at these events, wore a t-shirt declaring, "Meat Is Murder: tasty tasty murder."
The tickets used at the Falcons and Knights events featured three numbers per ticket. With three spins per round, participants got decent odds with nine chances to win per round.
"I love the hams," said Polish Falcons Ladies Auxiliary Member Cindy Szfranski, who attends meat raffles three or four times a month. "I was just at one over at the Eagles last Saturday," she said, referencing the Fraternal Order of Eagles organization, while waiting to order at the bar. Her drink was included in her cover charge of $5.
The promise of unlimited Labatt Blue or domestic brew is part of the appeal.
"The doors open at 6, at 5:30 there are people lined up waiting to drink," said Paul Kloc, a volunteer bartender at the Falcons event. By around 9:30 pm, attendees had gone through six or seven kegs, said Kloc. Six standard kegs would have provided around three beers per person in the crowd of 300 — and more assuming not everyone drank beer.
Despite the fact that Buffalonians have made them their own, meat raffles are nothing new. They've been smaller affairs held in pubs in the U.K. and Australia and midwestern taverns in places including Minnesota and Wisconsin for years.
Polish Falcon Ray Stack sucked on an unlit cigar while on meat table sentry duty, overseeing wrapped turkeys and racks of ribs as they emerged from a chilled storage area. Dennis "Zoots" Szuder bagged the prizes for winners.
When he's not volunteering at a meat raffle, Zoots brings props.
"I got the turkey hats, little hand clappers, little chickens that squeak — I bring a whole bag of that stuff," he said.
The five ladies wearing chew toy jewelry held court, each crowned in wobbling turkey leg headbands. "It's Thanksgiving," proclaimed Pat Mazur. "We found them at Wegmans."
However, the hot dogs, sausages and chicken cutlets scored at meat raffles here usually don't come from the beloved Western New York grocery chain. Instead, organizers keep it local. Most seem to get their prize supply from independent butchers and meat markets, some of which have been catering to the meat raffle craze.
"The groundswell is unbelievable," said Federal Meats Supervisor Tom Benzin. "I mean there isn't a week that goes by that we don't get an email or a request to talk about a meat raffle."
The local butchery has nine locations and runs underwriting messages on local NPR-affiliate WBFO to promote meat raffle services. The Camellia Meats website has a special note on its homepage: "Buffalo has its fair share of meat raffles throughout the year and we have you covered."
At some more elaborate meat raffles involving special wheels, even the tickets come from a local supplier, said Falcons event announcer Fred Schmidt.
Meat raffles are "a crazy thing," said Ed Nabozny, a Polish Falcons volunteer, recalling a time when his wife spent $51 on raffle tickets to try to win three pounds of Sahlen's hot dogs, a local staple her family already had a supply of in the freezer. She didn't win them.
"But we were happy. We had a few beers, we had a couple drinks, but you know, everybody leaves with a smile on their face."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK, it's football season. In fact, the high school where I graduated is in the state championship coming up - not that I'm that excited. It is also hockey season. In some ways, it's basketball season. And in Western New York, it is meat raffle season. Hopeful carnivores descend on churches and town halls hoping to get lucky. Reporter Kate Kaye is on it, just outside Buffalo.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You want to get a chance for a liquor basket...
KATE KAYE, BYLINE: A meat raffle? It's just what it sounds like; you buy tickets for the chance to win steaks or sausage.
CINDY COCHAYA: We come to all the meat raffles.
KAYE: Cindy Cochaya (ph) was among the more-than-300 people who showed up on a recent Saturday to the Polish Falcons Hall. She and her friends Arlene Krisminsky (ph) and Carol Wozniak (ph) wore handcrafted necklaces adorned with meat-shaped pendants.
(SOUNDBITE OF SQUEAKING)
KAYE: Did you guys make these?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Their dog chew toys.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: All right, you've got a drumstick.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You've got a rib-eye.
KAYE: Meat raffles have been around for decades. But ask almost anybody - in Western New York, there's been a meat raffle boom. They're fundraisers, usually for a charity or a peewee hockey league. The latest craze? A chance to win the mighty freezer filled with meat. Chrissie Strader was one of the younger rafflegoers in the multigenerational crowd. She came decked out in a goofy hat.
CHRISSIE STRADER: It's a beer - a pitcher of beer on my head (laughter).
KAYE: Chrissie was the designated driver this time, but other nights she likes the fact that a small cover gets her all the Labatt Blue or Bud Light she wants.
STRADER: Five dollars - you can drink and win meat. Who doesn't enjoy meat?
KAYE: Volunteer bartender Paul Kloc admits maybe meat raffles are more about beer than winning a ham.
PAUL KLOC: Probably. But it's about 60-40. They say the doors open at 6; at 5:30, there are people lined up, waiting to drink.
KAYE: Compared to, say, a candy fundraiser, the money rolls in bigger and faster. Some meat raffle fans say they spend $50, some as much as $150, on raffle tickets. And there are usually decent odds, with multiple spins of the wheel per round. Runners rush to the tables to sell tickets for each round, and people hold up singles if they want in.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Number 159 - 159.
KAYE: Winners jog up to fetch pork loins or slabs of bacon. In the end, a guy sitting up front won the freezer full of meat. But that won't stop rafflegoers Ray Sharpa (ph) and Dana Dumma (ph) from coming back.
RAY SHARPA: And we have a good time, man - let me tell you.
DANA DUMMA: The meat raffles are awesome.
KAYE: There's no doubt they'll have their pick of Western New York meat raffles. This trend could become a tradition.
For NPR News, I'm Kate Kaye in Buffalo.
(SOUNDBITE OF MEAT PUPPETS' "I'M A MINDLESS IDIOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.