The steaks were piled high in the freezer in the back room at Queen of Angels Church hall in Lackawanna, where nearly 300 people gathered one recent Friday for a meat raffle.
Up for grabs were racks of ribs, pork tenderloins, chicken cutlets, sausage links and some prime cuts of sirloin – all dispensed with a few spins of the wheel.
“We don’t do this every day,” said Marge Skrzypek, seated at a table with her husband, Frank.
Their stack of dollar bills, perched within arm’s reach, would be gone before night’s end – used two at a time to buy tickets during each of the raffle’s 20 rounds.
The Skrzypeks were determined to win a frozen turkey.
“We do it for the church,” said Marge. “For us, it’s a night out.”
People in Western New York can’t seem to get enough of the popular fundraisers. As many as 15 meat raffles are scheduled through January, according to wnymeatraffles.com.
Meat raffles traditionally were conducted in pubs and bars in Britain, Australia and Canada, where they were called meat draws. In the United States, meat raffles first became popular in the mid-1940s, particularly in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where they filled veterans posts, fire halls and corner bars with working-class people looking for a good time.
The premise is simple: To win meat, you need a ticket. Tickets are purchased from “runners” for one dollar each. Winning tickets are determined by the spin of a wheel. An average raffle runs 60 spins. That’s 20 rounds, with each round featuring three spins of a 4-foot gaming wheel.
Organizers agree that a giant wooden wheel makes a big difference.
“Having the big wheel gets people way more excited,” said Dylan Randall, who organized a recent raffle to benefit Tri-City Aces, a baseball travel league for boys. The event at the George F. Lamm Post in Williamsville drew 275 to 325 players.
“It’s becoming crazy,” Randall said. “Even if people don’t know what a meat raffle is, after you go to one you’re hooked.”
It is not unusual to drop $50 at a raffle and go home meatless, but the faithful don’t seem to care.
“A lot of people will bring their own snacks and veggie trays,” said Gene Nowicki, a Queen of Angels Church trustee who started planning his raffle in September. “They come in groups and have a lot of fun. It’s like tailgating.”
Mark “The Meat Guy” Demmin, 52, has made a name on the local raffle circuit as an organizer and announcer.
“They are becoming more of a social event for people,” Demmin said. “There are some people who reserve tables for 20 members of their extended family so they know they have a seat when they get there.”
A typical meat raffle lasts about three hours. It plays out like a bingo game, with banquet-sized tables filled with noisy people who bring a wide array of good luck tokens and food items to pass. Religious statues, rabbits’ feet, a Buddha – vie for table space with Bundt cakes, bags of snacks and dips. Underneath the tables are coolers packed with ice waiting to be filled with meat by lucky ticket holders.
Demmin organized his first raffle in 2010 for Western New York Maritime Charter School on Genesee Street. Today, Demmin is hired by various nonprofits looking to run profitable raffles. Demmin, who books one year in advance, writes the program, orders the meat and lists the raffles on wnymeatraffles.com, a website started by Aaron Fox.
“Some friends had been trying to talk us into going for a number of years,” said Fox, who owns and operates Globalquest Solutions of Amherst.
“We didn’t understand the concept, but finally went and once we were there we became addicted. There’s a wheel of luck spinning and excitement over the chance of winning meat with a dollar bill. We have people who show up in chicken and hamburger costumes.”
Five years ago, Fox, 44, and his wife searched church bulletins to find their next raffle. The website was born of necessity, he said.
“We’ve had more than 120 submissions,” Fox said. “Meat raffles used to be focused around Easter and Thanksgiving Day, but now they’re pretty consistent year-round. Mark is booked out a year in advance. It’s a pretty lucrative deal as for fundraisers. Where else are you going to work for three-and-a-half to four hours and make $9,000 to $10,000? It’s a lot better than selling candy bars.”
The appeal of meat raffles appears easy to understand, said Brianna Harris, who teaches psychology at Hilbert College. She chalks it up to collective effervescence.
“People get caught up in the moment, swept away by the crowd,” Harris explained. “So once you are sitting down at a meat raffle watching the people around you having fun, you get caught up in the excitement and in the community.”
Meat raffles vary in scope and theme, depending on where in the country they are located.
A pre-Independence Day meat raffle in Shirley, Mass., adds fireworks to the raffle. The Barbecue Meat Raffle in Algonquin-Lake in the Hills, Ill., is held in August.
But the SloPig Buffet and Meat Raffle in Milwaukee puts a different spin on the go-to fundraiser.
The event begins with a pig-centered buffet featuring crisp pork meatballs, pulled heritage pork, whipped Ossabaw Meishan pig butter and old-fashioned brined ham sandwiches. The raffle that follows gives away various breeds of heritage pig meat. Snout masks are distributed to repeat winners.
Many organizers believe the key to success is to keep the beer and wine flowing. They charge from $5 to $10 at the door and provide unlimited beer, wine and pop, enabling even the timid carnivore to step up to the karaoke mic.
Karaoke meat raffles
Demmin emcees at many of the raffles he organizes.
The former volunteer firefighter called many bingo games during his 18-year fundraising career at the former All Saints School in Riverside. He said he keeps the raffle exciting by getting the crowd involved.
“At St. Ben’s, we do karaoke,” Demmin said. “The people get up and do the chicken dance. I have a wireless microphone. I talk with the crowd, find out whose birthday it is. I get a regular circuit of people. I know them by name.”
He pointed to St. Vincent DePaul Church in Niagara Falls as setting the bar for meat raffle excellence.
“They had 466 people this April,” he said with pride. “And they don’t serve alcohol.”
Nick Sebastiano manages the Depew-Lancaster Moose Lodge on Broadway in Lancaster. Eight years ago the lodge needed to replace the back roof at a cost of $100,000, so Sebastiano turned to meat raffles to raise money. Today’s project is a front roof, and Sebastiano figured the lodge needed $20,000 more to finish the roof. Meat raffles, he said, will get the job done.
“We’ve had meat raffles where we’ve gone through 4,000 singles,” said Sebastiano. “It’s a way to win meat for the holiday season. We get ours at Sloan Super Market.
“We’re known for our turkey bowling,” he noted. “For $2 you get a chance to slide a frozen turkey into bowling pins. If you get a strike, you win the turkey.”