Mark Toriski, Managing
Editor, Great Lakes Life Magazine
As seen in Great Lakes Life Magazine, June 2010
It’s hard to imagine what kind of city Buffalo would be if Drew Cerza never cleaned his garage. One thing’s for sure, it would not have its king. Its Wing King that is – the velvet-caped, giant-foam-chicken-wing-hat-wearing persona Cerza has created in part of his dedication each year to marketing our region’s greatest contributions to pub grub – the Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival. Each Labor Day weekend, tens of thousands of people travel across the country to downtown Coca Cola Park in celebration of Buffalo’s party food. And its origins can be traced to two unlikely sources – Bill Murray and Drew’s garage.
“What happened was a columnist for the Buffalo News saw the movie Osmosis Jones. In the film, Bill Murray’s character mentions a Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival, but we didn’t have one at the time,” says Cerza. “So he wrote an article talking about how we should leverage Buffalo wings being named after our city. He basically put a call out for someone to do this festival. I was cleaning out my garage one day when I saw the newspaper on top of my recycling bin. I started reading the article and I thought, ‘I could do this.’ The lesson here is every man in America should clean his garage. You never know what you are going to find.”
According to the citizens of Buffalo, Drew Cerza is a man who gets things done (these exact words have been written before). There is his ability to take a novel idea like a summer festival dedicated to chicken wings and grow it from 40,000 people consuming 20 tons of wings to 91,000 people from 49 states (we missed you last year, Arkansas) and 35 countries consuming 40 tons of chicken wings. “The first year was a lot of guessing and scrambling,” admits Cerza of the inaugural 2002 Festival. “It’s not like there is a manual for running a wing festival. But we pulled it off, and we have gotten better throughout the years.”
And then there is his dedication to help his community. When the city’s annual New Year’s Eve ball drop in Roosevelt Square was on the verge of cancellation in 2003 due to lack of sponsorship, Cerza was able to allocate more than $50,000 in three days to secure funding, saving the project. Then-Mayor Anthony Masiello proclaimed New Year’s Eve “Drew Cerza Day” for the City of Buffalo. “It’s a matter of just doing something and getting it done. If you believe in something, you can make it happen,” says Cerza. “That’s how I approach all my projects. That’s what you have to do in life.”
All in a day’s work for the King.
A natural promoter, Drew has spent his entire life in the food industry. His father worked in marketing for a now-defunct Buffalo grocery chain, and Drew would accompany him on Saturdays. “I got a lot of my creativity from his business acumen. You are a product of your parents. My mom was also this outgoing, gregarious person.” In 1994, Cerza founded RMI Promotions Group, a national food promotion agency for local and national retailers as well as national food manufacturers – including Hershey’s, General Mills, and Price Pasta. He would retire his role as president in 2005 to focus on his festival work.
While Cerza is a passionate wingman, his true love shows as he discusses his nonprofit and charity work. Through RMI he helped raise more than $1 million for various nonprofit groups and to date the Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival has raised more than $175,000 for local charities during its eight years. “My whole business platform has always been about raising money for charity. It’s all about giving back to the community,” he says. “It’s about civic pride. People are proud of this festival. The Buffalo wing is a unique food and it is our food.”
Cerza’s Wing King alter-ego was first created in 2004. He was set to travel to five major cities in the United States to distribute Anchor Bar wings in honor of its 40th anniversary. “I went to this costume store and picked up a cape. My wife pressed on letters to spell ‘Wing King.’ We put on a foam chicken wing hat, kind of like the Wisconsin cheese hats, and I got a “Wing King” T-shirt. Next thing I know, I’m on the front page of the Buffalo News. But when Bobby Flay called me the Wing King, that’s when it really stuck.”
The Wing King has garnered Cerza a lot of press, making him one of the city’s most beloved ambassadors. He has been a spokesman for Pizza Hut’s Wing Street restaurants, and he has promoted the Festival, and Buffalo, on CNN, The Today Show, The View, Live with Regis and Kelly, the Travel Channel, and five different appearances on different Food Network programs, including a victorious appearance on the competition show Throwdown! with Bobby Flay in 2007 (interestingly, Cerza won with a New Orleans–style bourbon wing sauce in lieu of the classic Buffalo). Cerza will be featured in Flay’s upcoming book, Bobby Flay’s Throwdown!, out this coming October.
“Everything exploded since [Throwdown!],” says Cerza. “Right now Bobby Flay is the most recognizable and respected foodie out there. I think the Food Network took the Wing Festival to the top. They created this nation of foodies. Now people plan their vacations on visiting cities and checking out the architecture, the culture, and especially the food. And I love our region’s foods. There’s a lot of comfort foods here like wings, beef on weck, fish fries…but over the last four or five years we have become more than these. We have some high-end chefs now. Our food culture has taken off from regional to white table cloths, but it doesn’t matter if it’s a local diner or a white table cloth restaurant, you will still find that Buffalo personality on the menu.”