Saturday, April 08, 2006

Nightwatch: The meat raffle is a way of life at Minnesota bars

Tom Horgen
Last update: April 06, 2006 – 6:24 PM
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When it comes to charitable gambling at Twin Cities bars, there's only one prize other than money that gets people jumping out of their seats.
Raw meat.

Yep, raw meat does something to people. Which would explain the peculiar popularity of the meat raffle.

Huh? Well, if you haven't set foot in a neighborhood bar lately, it's exactly what the name suggests. An emcee walks around the bar selling numbered raffle tickets for $1 apiece. After all the tickets are sold, the emcee spins a paddlewheel -- like in roulette.

The person with the winning number gets to choose from various packages of meat. This is repeated for two to three hours. It keeps people's attention, though. At a recent raffle I went to, each meat package was worth about $20, with steak, ham, ribs and shrimp being among the favorites.

At that value, it's easy to see why bar-goers flock to these shindigs like lions to, well, raw meat. It doesn't cost much to play; in this case, 30 tickets were sold, so at 29-to-1 the odds weren't bad -- better than pulltabs, anyway.

Meat raffles can be found all over the Twin Cities, from their traditional hotbeds in the working-class neighborhoods of northeast Minneapolis and east St. Paul to suburban dive bars.
One of the best takes place from 3 to 7 p.m. Sundays at Tin Cup's, a homey old-school bar on Rice Street in St. Paul. Meat raffles can be a tad uneventful; mostly it's just folks staring into their beer until a number is called. Tin Cup's offers a little more.

For one, it's got polka maestro Roger Van Horn, who, um, rocks. He serenades the meat rafflers every Sunday with what he calls "funtime music." After playing polka music for 50 years in Twin Cities bars, Van Horn brings in a hefty following of old-timers looking to boogie to the sounds of his rare Cordovox accordion. Oh, and there's a clown, too.

In between polka tunes, as senior couples twirled on the small dance floor and "JR" the red-nosed clown moved from table to table with his parlor tricks, numbers were yelled out for raw meat. Winners hoisted open the creaking lid of a 4-foot long cooler, rummaging through pounds of cold meat before claiming their prize.

And it wasn't just old-timers sitting among the steaks and hams thawing out next to glasses of beer at Tin Cup's.

Young people get in on the mix, too. Besides a Goth couple in the corner, there was 25-year-old Alison Voyda, who came with her grandparents last Sunday. They played pulltabs and bought meat-raffle tickets all afternoon and into the evening. Both games are run by nearby St. Bernard's, a Catholic church and K-12 school. As with any charitable game, all proceeds go to the sponsoring charity, while the bar gets a leasing fee (and makes money off drinks, of course).
Voyda's family grew up going to St. Bernard's and hanging out at Rice Street joints like Tin Cup's.

"We go to church in the morning and gamble in the afternoon," grandfather Gene Voyda said. "See, it's all for the church."
Rise of the raffle

No one knows exactly how many meat raffles are operating in Twin Cities bars -- not even the Minnesota Gambling Board, which issues the paddle wheels and tip boards needed to play. The board only tallies how many are in use, not what they're being used for. One thing officials do know, however, is that the raffle devices are in high demand.

Minnesota is increasingly notorious for its meat raffles, said Gambling Board compliance officer Gary Danger, who cited a recent New York Times story spotlighting Minnesota's meaty obsession. We love our meat, and we aren't afraid to show it.

Jimmy Luger, a meat raffle connoisseur, was at Tin Cup's with his parents and girlfriend last Sunday. He'll usually drop $20 on a raffle night -- that's 20 plays. He won six times earlier in the week at another meat raffle, but was empty-handed this night. His girlfriend said the meat isn't that important, anyway.

"We come for the social," she said.
"What do you mean?" Luger cut in, almost flabbergasted. "I come to win the meat."

Where: 1220 Rice St., St. Paul. 651-489-7585.
Meat raffles: 3-7 p.m. Sundays, with polka music by Roger Van Horn, plus another 4-8 p.m. Thursdays, but with no music. • 612-673-7909
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