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Wing Fest gives city global boost

The map hung last weekend at the entrance of Coca-Cola Field. It was the brainstorm of Pete Calleri, a longtime Buffalo guy.

Calleri spent last year's National Buffalo Wing Fest helping festival founder Drew Cerza. Calleri was struck by all of the folks who told Cerza -- who was conspicuously garbed in his "Wing King" T-shirt -- how far they traveled to get here. Calleri wanted to catalog the out-of-towners, who inject the best remedy -- new money -- into our comatose economy.

So, this year, Calleri drew a big map of the United States. Out-of-towners entering the downtown stadium were asked to stick a location pushpin on the map. Many of them did. It soon became obvious: The Wing Fest has gone global.

Only one state, Arkansas, lacked a pin. Clusters covered the Northeast and Southern Ontario. Folks came from as far as Japan (10), China (4), Kenya, Czech Republic, Poland, Australia, Italy, Germany, Sweden, England, the Bahamas and Singapore. By coming, they help to put Buffalo on the map.

This was what Cerza had in mind eight years ago, when -- picking up on an idea from yours truly -- he took out a home equity loan to fund the first National Wing Fest. Sure, he wanted to make money. Yes, he wanted to certify Buffalo's claim to the culinary phenomenon created here. But he also wanted to create a festival that would bring people -- and their money -- from parts distant.

"This is what we talked about from Day One, creating a tourism opportunity for Buffalo," said Cerza, a former food promotions guy with a high-rev, can-do engine. "I did not conceive of it just as a local event."

I caught up with Cerza at a Williamsville restaurant, just before he left for Wednesday's "Today Show" appearance.

"It was billed from the start as a national wing fest," Cerza said. "The idea was to bring people in to fill hotels, to eat in restaurants, to visit other sites."

Mission accomplished.

Every downtown hotel -- Hyatt, Holiday Inn, Adam's Mark, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, Best Western, Comfort Inn, Doubletree -- was full Saturday night, a rarity on a summer weekend. Nearly half of the Holiday Inn's 167 rooms went to Wing Fest visitors.

"The Wing Fest pushes hotels over the top [on Labor Day weekend]," the Holiday Inn's Dave Carroll said. "We had people from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Canada -- a real good number of out-of-towners."

A lot of those folks stayed for the weekend, went to Niagara Falls, bought a T-shirt, ate in restaurants and in other ways spent money that otherwise would not have come here. We get an economic bump from the Wing Fest that even a vegetarian can cluck about.

It shows what can happen when we make the most of what we have -- whether it is developing the waterfront or capitalizing on our connection to a culinary sensation.

"People come from out of town and have a good experience," said Cerza, the interim head of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Then they go home and tell 10 people about it."

Sure, some visitors stopped on their way to somewhere else. Some expatriates meshed Wing Fest with a trip home. But many out-of-towners came solely for the opportunity to annihilate some wings.

There is a reason, beyond the simple appeal of the idea, why the Wing Fest has gone global. The festival has been featured on everything from the Food Network to the Travel Channel. The explosion of food shows and celebrity chefs has fanned the Wing Fest's flame.

A record 91,000 people walked through the gates last weekend. An idea hatched eight years ago has been good not just for Cerza, who made it happen, but for Buffalo. Just check the map.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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