Niagara Notables

Drew Cerza

He’s demonstrated the quintessential “Bourbon Street BBQ” Buffalo wing recipe on “Live with Regis and Kelly,” “The Today Show,” and “The View”; beat renowned chef Bobby Flay in a Buffalo wing throwdown; and launched a national festival celebrating the bar food that was created in his hometown in 1964. And for the past three years, Drew Cerza, the Wing King, has shown eager young Niagarans the art of hosting a successful event.

As a part-time instructor in the College of Hospitality and Tourism Management, Cerza shares his considerable experience with his students each fall, guiding them as they plan and run a special event. Cerza knows that experience is the best teacher, and he gives his students ample opportunities to gain knowledge and skills through hands-on work.

Cerza, himself, learned the business by doing. Inspired by his father, who worked in marketing for a supermarket chain and created imaginative, one-of-a-kind displays for national brands, Cerza founded RMI Promotions in 1994, which has represented national clients such as Hershey’s and General Mills.

Some of the promotional work was done at local festivals. As Cerza distributed food samples to festival attendees, he learned the organizational aspects of running a large-scale event, knowledge he put to the test when he launched the National Buffalo Wing Festival in 2002 after reading a column in the Buffalo News one Friday afternoon. The column referenced the movie “Osmosis Jones,” in which Bill Murray’s character attends the fictitious National Chicken Wing Festival in Buffalo. The columnist put out a call for someone to launch such a festival, and Cerza answered it.

“I knew I had the tools to put the whole thing together,” he says. He developed a plan over the weekend and called the writer, who announced the festival in his next column. By the middle of the week, CNN had covered the story, and Cerza was on his way to launching what has become known as the Super Bowl of the wing industry.

The first year was a challenge, Cerza acknowledges. There was no way to know how many people would attend, and, while Cerza had a clear vision of what the festival could look like, it was difficult to get restaurant buy-in. He managed to get 15 restaurants to commit, and on Labor Day Weekend 2002, the Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival was born.

From that first year, when 40,000 people enjoyed 20 tons of wings, the festival has grown in size and scope. Last year’s event brought 92,000 people to Coca Cola Field in downtown Buffalo, representing every state but Arkansas (ironically, the home of Tyson chicken) and 31 different countries. They devoured 40 tons of wings prepared in 100 different sauces by more than 30 restaurants and watched contests like the Buffalo Blue Cheese Bowl, where contestants bob for wings in a baby pool filled with blue cheese. The festival features cooking demonstrations, a Miss Buffalo Wing contest, and the selection of an inductee into the National Buffalo Wing “Hall of Flame.” It’s a two-day nirvana for wing lovers, with an energy all its own.

“Buffalo is a special city with a big passion for wings,” Cerza notes. “Wings are a passionate food. There’s a level of intensity and excitement at the Wing Festival — it’s not just about serving wings.”

The festival (and his victory over Chef Flay) has firmly established Cerza as the “go-to” guy for all things wings, and Buffalo as the undisputed home of the Buffalo wing, a boon for the region’s tourist trade.

“What the festival represents is Buffalo taking ownership of the Buffalo wing and celebrating it,” Cerza says. “It’s become a huge tourism opportunity for Buffalo. It’s good for the local economy. Tourists leave with a great impression of what Buffalo is really like.”

The festival is also good for the local community. Cerza is as passionate about community service as he is about wings, and he donates the proceeds from the festival to local charities (to date, $175,000). It’s something he has done since his days at the helm of RMI Promotions, when he launched several campaigns to support organizations like the Food Bank of Western New York and the Race for the Cure. He shares this passion with his Niagara students as well — the proceeds from the events they host have gone to the Boys and Girls Club of Niagara Falls and the WNY Food Bank.

Cerza also donates his time to his community, donning his Wing King regalia (a red velvet cape, a foam chicken-wing shaped “crown,” and a scepter made of a plunger and a rooster) each year to visit the second-grade class at Forest Elementary School and talk about the food, and the city, he loves.

“It’s just such a good feeling,” he says. “That’s my favorite thing to do each year.”

After years of bringing people to Buffalo, Cerza is now planning to take his festival on the road. He wants to travel across the country, hosting events that invite restaurants to compete for a chance to come to Buffalo and show off their wings. He’s looking for variety — in size, in location, and in the history of the restaurants — but most importantly, he’s looking for restaurants that are as zealous about wings, and the festival, as he is.

Cerza has made a career by doing what he loves, and that’s an example he hopes his Niagara students follow. “Money is one thing, but doing something that you really like feels good and brings some kind of balance to your life,” he says, noting that the support of his wife and daughters has enabled him to find that balance. “This is about life, not business. It’s not about getting bigger; at the end of the day, it’s about balancing family and what you do.”