Bringing on the Heat
In its first year, East Dubuque (Ill.) High School's Wingfest was small enough to fit into an empty lot and happy to break even. Six years later, it stretched to fill a whole downtown block, and was able to raise $15,000 for high school athletics. In this article, restaurateur and Warrior Booster Club President John Digman explains how they've created an annual tradition.
By John Digman
President, East Dubuque (Ill.) High School Warrior Booster Club
When we started Wingfest about six years ago, we were looking for a fundraiser where we wouldn't have to beat on people's doors year after year. We knew that people like festivals, and there was already an annual chili cook-off in town, so I suggested a chicken wing festival. I said, "That way, we can host an event for the whole community, and raise some money in the process."
When I pitched the idea, there were some people who had cold feet. But like with any other fundraiser, you can't worry about failing. If you want to succeed, you've got to go for it, and that's what we did.
We started small. That first year, eight cooks formed a half-circle in an empty lot in East Dubuque. It was a hit, and every year, it keeps getting bigger. This summer, we had more than 20 contestants, who lined both sides of Main Street, and next year, we're probably going to expand to two city blocks.
It's important for us to keep the event really family friendly. So we have live music, provide free inflatable rides, host games where kids can win prizes, and hold a corn boil at 5 o'clock, where we give away 125 dozen ears of corn. That's a lot of corn, and it's a good way to thank everybody in the community for the support they give us year-round.
It doesn't cost anything to attend, but we charge a $50 entry fee for each contestant, and there are separate competitions for restaurants and backyard cooks. At this point, we probably have a 50-50 balance of pros and amateurs, and we have groups like the Lions Club, which has participated every year. Cooks have a good time coming up with themes and razzing each other, and the competition for the showmanship award is getting as competitive as the wing cook-off itself.
To keep things simple, we sell punch cards with 10 wings for $5. There's a people's choice award, along with prizes for barbecue, traditional, and unique wings. Our judges are celebrities from the community, like local politicians, coaches, and members of the media. We get a lot of support from businesses too, with corporate sponsorships that range from $1,500 up to $3,500.
We get student-athletes involved, too. They volunteer to help run the events, so when people come to Wingfest, they see our kids are donating their time, and that means a lot. The teams have an opportunity to earn some money of their own too, so if they want to sell ice cream or host a 50-50 raffle, we'll give them a booth.
The first year we hardly made any money. There are a lot of miscellaneous expenses, but we've tweaked the formula every year since then, mostly by trial and error. By now we've got it pretty well dialed in, and in 2010, we netted about $15,000. Every year, more people come, and over time, Wingfest has become the signature event of the community. It's a lot of hard work. But at the end of the day, it's well worth it.