Wing King Drew Cerza is changing the way Buffalo is viewed, one chicken wing at a time.
Drew’s “hottest” moment to date came in 2007 when he edged out Bobby Flay in a “Chicken Wing Throwdown” on the popular Food Network show. Since then, he has become the wing ambassador for this American food icon. In 2003, Drew was named a “Buffalo Citizen of the Year” and in 2011, the “Tourism Executive of the Year.” He travels the country in search of unique wings that capture the local flavor of different regions. The “Wing King” has been featured on many media outlets including the Food Network’s “All-American Festivals,” “Unwrapped,” and “Emeril Lagasse Live;” the Travel Channel’s “Bar Food Paradise,” “Taste of America,” and “Food Wars;” NBC’s “The Today Show,” ABC’s “The View” and “Regis and Kelly;” CBS’ “Morning Show;” FOX Network’s “Fox and Friends;” PBS and the BBC. Click here to The View Wing King's Recipes
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.”
They call him the “WING KING”, a title that’s well-deserved. Drew Cerza is, after all, the guy who started the world famous NATIONAL BUFFALO WING FESTIVAL and has likely done more than anybody on the planet to promote chicken wings and the city of their birth…Buffalo, NY.
Over the past five years, the festival has attracted more than a quarter of a million people from throughout the U.S. and rest of the world…people who enjoy sampling the best from more than two dozen restaurants from around the country and the 100 different styles of chicken wings that are served every year. In case you’re wondering just how many wings that is, the answer is over one million. Along the way, Drew’s now famous festival has raised more than 95 thousand dollars for local charities.
With several successful chicken wing festivals “under his belt”, along with countless Buffalo Wings, of course…Drew set out in 2006 to celebrate another American food icon like nobody else can, by launching the first-ever NATIONAL HAMBURGER FESTIVAL, in Akron, Ohio. In its very first year, this event drew twenty thousand people and was featured on the FOOD NETWORK’S hit series “Unwrapped”. Again, some of the proceeds of the festival went to charity…Akron’s Children’s Hospital.
Drew Cerza and his festivals have, in fact, drawn the attention of media throughout the world, including CNN, The Travel Channel and the FOOD NETWORK. Highlights include his appearance on NBC’S TODAY SHOW, where he taught host Matt Lauer the art of preparing the perfect chicken wing. Then, there was the PBS documentary featuring Drew and the NATIONAL BUFFALO WING FESTIVAL. Most recently, he faced-off against Bobby Flay in a chicken wing cooking challenge. This episode of “THROWDOWN WITH BOBBY FLAY” resulted in a “win” for the WING KING.
Now considered the “Super Bowl” of the wing industry, Drew’s NATIONAL BUFALAO WING FESTIVAL has also made him the “go-to guy” for information about chicken wings. And, the WING KING is now focused on cultivating his kitchen skills…even developing his own chicken wing sauces. He has a number of “Buffalo Wing” style foods in development, which he plans to sell under the “Buffalo Wing King Foods” label.
What Drew is perhaps most proud of, however, is what his endeavors have done for his beloved city of Buffalo, where he has become its best known ambassador. Says Drew, “I love Buffalo. It’s a great city, with awesome people and the best regional food in the country.”
This “love affair” is mutual, of course. The people of Buffalo and Western New York also love Drew Cerza, who has done much for the city’s image, and, through his charitable contributions, much for its needy and disadvantaged families.
Speaking of families, Drew is very much the “family-man”, as well…helping his wife, Jodi, raise their two daughters, Nicole and Sydney in their suburban Buffalo home.
The National Buffalo Wing Festival was inspired in 2002 by the movie “Osmosis Jones,” where a fictitious character played by actor Bill Murray was a junk food and chicken wing addict with the goal of attending the National Chicken Wing Festival in Buffalo, NY. Buffalo News columnist, Donn Esmonde then wrote in a column that he was bewildered that Buffalo did not have such an event. That is when I decided to take on the challenge for my hometown—and really promote these wings we all know and love! Within a year, the plan was set for this annual Labor Day Weekend event at Coca-Cola Field in Downtown Buffalo.
The festival is recognized by many national media outlets as one of the best in the country. Over the last twelve years the festival has drawn over 795,000 people and served over 4.2 million wings. The festival which also supports local charities has donated over $270,000 since its inception. As a great tourism magnet for the City of Buffalo, wing lovers from all over America and the world make the annual pilgrimage to pay homage to the birthplace of the Buffalo Wing. Last year we found through on-site surveys that attendees came from all 50 states and over 34 different countries. The festival has had a great local economic impact. Last year over 70 thousand people devoured around 30 tons of wings. It has become the “Super Bowl” of the chicken wing industry for restaurants, wing lovers and even competitive eaters. So “Wing it to Buffalo” and join us for the fun and excitement at one of America’s greatest food festivals this Labor Day Weekend—The National Buffalo Wing Festival!