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Playtime with the Red Pinto Tailgate

An iconic car from decades past, garden tools and a gun safe are only part of the story.

by Jane Ehrhardt

At 11:30 a.m. on home-game Sundays, the Def Leppard song “Pour Some Sugar on Me” booms across a small parking lot across the street from the Buffalo Bills stadium and directly to the left of the RV lot.

Out walks an average-appearing, bearded man in t-shirt and jeans who stands fearless in the center of a ring of hundreds of pent-up football fans, all staring. Silently. Then he holds out a single, plain hamburger and announces, “I got this hamburger, but it looks like they forgot something.”

A lone voice answers, “What do you need?”

And the crowd erupts. “Ketchup! Ketchup! Ketchup!”

Then the counting begins at “One!” and when it reaches three, three men armed with mammoth ketchup bottles deluge the lone hamburger-holder from head to waist. When the bottles are spent, up steps three women armed with caulk guns loaded with mustard.

The ecstatic crowd’s chant swiftly changes to “Mustard! Mustard! Mustard!” and a volley of bright yellow goo arcs across the circle to layer a whole new color of condiment on the man and his forlorn and well-drenched hamburger.

That stalwart man is Kenny Johnson, a software engineer better known as Pinto Ron, the cofounder of the Red Pinto Tailgate. He’s been attending Bills games for over 30 years and November will mark his 400th game in a row, including away games.

A Coat of Condiments

The Ketchup ceremony started 20 years ago by accident when Johnson asked for some ketchup for his burger and some guys at the tailgate tried to squirt it on the patty from afar. Just to see if they could. They couldn’t. But Johnson made a far more hilarious target, and the ritual evolved.

Now Bills fans migrate by the hundreds from the major tailgate lots surrounding the stadium to cross the street into Hammers Lot where Red Pinto tailgates. Just to witness the Ketchup ceremony.

“They know when Ketchup starts,” says Greg Kowalczyk, a tax analyst for a commercial real estate company and Red Pinto tailgater. “You do a panoramic scan of the crowd and it’s just people in a circle, fifty to a hundred deep, coming to watch an old man get doused in ketchup and mustard. It’s really something to see.”

But the event is more than just the spectacle. “Nick does the speech,” Kowalczyk says. He joined up with Red Pinto 15 years ago.

“I played football, and I give them the pump-up speeches like I used to hear,” explains Nick Papgelis, a supervisor for a payroll company. He’s been tailgating with the crew since the 90s.

“We get the crowd riled up and get them chanting ‘Ketchup!’” adds Kowalczyk. “They’ll repeat whatever Nick says by then.”

“It’s a very weird power to have,” admits Papgelis, even though his speeches have become more G-rated since he got married a few years ago. “My wife says I’m too old to be cursing,” he confesses.

At the home opener, the Ketchup crowd reaches 1,000 to 1,500 people. “Even when it’s cold and at 4 degrees and snowing like crazy, we still had 250 to 300 people there,” Papgelis says. “It’s the same thing every week for the last 20 years, but people still go nuts for it.”

Once the spectacle ends, the tailgate’s speakers blare the iconic Buffalo Bills “Shout!” song—played during the game every time the team scores— and “everyone goes wild and dances,” Kowalczyk says.

Meanwhile, Pinto Ron gets swamped with photo requests and stoically spends the next half hour or so posing among the riled-up crowd while still drenched in condiments and holding the burger. “He’s a showman,” Papgelis says proudly.

The Santa Proposal

Papgelis actually used his part in the Ketchup ritual to pop a surprise proposal on his then fiancé, Mandi, five years ago.

It was the pre-Christmas game on December 23, and Pinto Ron was decked out as Santa. Papgelis reeled off his usual wild, intense pump-up speech, out walked Santa with his naked burger, and then, before he could state his famous burger dilemma, Papgelis threw in a twist.

“Nick said, ‘Just one minute,’” describes Kowalczyk. “He grabbed his fiancé and pulled her into the center of the circle and said, ‘Santa, you got a present for me?’”

“Kenny threw Nick the ring, and I proposed,” Papgelis says. “She probably regrets it now, but she said yes then.” They married two years later.

“But he didn’t get married at the tailgate,” emphasizes Kowalczyk. However, a wedding is planned for this season between Red Pinto tailgaters Ryan and Alexa. Papgelis is going to become an online ordained minister and officiate. “Hopefully it turns out better than the first marriage that happened at the tailgate,” says Kowalczyk. “That only lasted like three years.”

The Red Pinto crew has also utilized the Ketchup ceremony and other means to help others. Local celebrities, like the sportscaster from a local channel, have bravely agreed to be doused alongside Kenny. “We’ve raised $35,000 for fellow tailgaters,” Kowalczyk says, including one who’s undergoing chemo right now.

“Bills fans aren’t just a bunch of rowdy table-smashers,” he says, referring to the nearly violent tradition practiced among some Bills fans inside the stadium parking lot. “We’re pretty good people sometimes.”

How to Cook on a Car

The way to find the Red Pinto Tailgate at the back of Hammers Lot begins with spotting the three flags: the Canadian flag, the American flag, and a red flag sporting the white silhouette of a Pinto car. You know the car. That distinctive, hunchbacked subcompact that was hot in the 70s. It’s what Pinto Ron drives to every game. Even now. His is the station-wagon model. “It’s an ‘84 red Ford Pinto,” Papgelis says. “He’s a gear head, so he fixes it up himself.”

And the crew grills on it using the oddest assortment of pots and pans. Wings are fried up in an army helmet, stir-fry gets cooked in a hubcap, and bacon sizzles on the flat blade of a saw. A shovel serves as a griddle for eggs and pancakes, while a rake becomes grates for grilled cheese and burgers. All heated by charcoal fires built in metal pans that sit right on the now blackened hood of the faithful Pinto.

“This was all a snowball effect,” Papgelis says. Somebody wanted to cook a bacon double cheeseburger, so something was needed for cooking the bacon. “Saws are easier to pack than a skillet, so Kenny used a saw, and it worked,” he continues. The helmet came about because Kenny’s a history buff, and saw a documentary where soldiers cooked in their helmets. “Then he just thought it would be funny to use a rake instead of a grate.”

“Kenny just starts looking around, through people’s stuff, to find ideas,” Kowalczyk says. “His personal cooler is an old toilet filled with ice, so no one steals his beer.”

The delicacies and their peculiar cookware don’t seem to stop. An old metal toolbox holds a charcoal fire with a grate set on top to create more grilling area. “Anywhere with available space, we just throw something on it,” Kowalczyk says.

A few feet away, an Italian wedding soup simmers in a watering can—“because it’s easier to serve from”—alongside an oil pan filled with Italian pulled pork gently boiling in a savory broth before being assembled into sliders. Both manned by Papgelis’s dad, Pizza Pete.

Pies Go Under “P”

Pete’s forte is his filing-cabinet pizza oven. That pizza has become the tailgate crew’s most famous dish.

It began with a desire to bake a dessert, like brownies. “That didn’t work,” says Papgelis. But then his dad watched a show on brick pizza ovens.

He took the file cabinet home and experimented. Now he churns out up to seven 3-cheese pizzas per tailgate. They take about 15 minutes to bake and are made with a proprietary sauce Pete concocts using tomatoes from his own garden. “He grew up making pizza in college, so he knew his stuff,” brags Papgelis.

Kowalczyk takes it further. “I think it’s the best pizza you’ll ever have…from a filing cabinet,” he says. “The sauce is amazing. And you can say that about the wings by Chef Mark too.”

That almost sounds normal. Then Pizza Pete pulls out a set of grass clippers and slices up the pie.

Flouting the norm never ends.

A Most Peculiar Shot Glass

Which brings us to the Red Pinto Tailgate bar. Though they have no official drink, pretty much just beer, they do apply their irreverence and ingenuity to their shots.

The shot glass is a plain, black balling bowl. A real one. And not a new one. “Kenny found it in a dumpster behind a bowling alley. It was pretty scuffed up,” says Papgelis. “We just fill up the thumbhole, and you do a shot.”

Originally the ball was used in a not-surprising and tailgate-expected way—knocking down empty beer bottles to see how many broke. “One day, Kenny brought shot glasses and the bowling ball broke them all. He said, ‘We’ll just use the thumbhole instead,’” says Papgelis. It’s become their second most famous tradition.

Of course, there’s more to this then downing a shot. “You take the shot, then you blow the horn,” explains Papgelis, talking about a long, red, plastic horn that sits by the small bar like you’d find in a college dorm.

Then you drop the balling ball. If the ball does not land with the hole facing up, you’re penalized with another shot. “You want to stick the landing, because the penalty is a 14- or 16-pound ball, so it’s a bigger shot,” he says laughing.

“We’re pretty lenient,” Kowalczyk says. “But if it’s an opposing fan—or anyone—being rowdy, we give them a penalty shot.”

“And you have to put the ball back. Don’t leave it on the ground,” adds Papgelis, hinting that the faux pas results in another penalty shot. “We may seem like hooligans, but we have manners.”

And endless panache. Their liquor cabinet is a gun safe. Yet the liquor for the shots is a Polish cherry-flavored liqueur costing a measly $12 a bottle. “It tastes like cherry cough syrup,” says Kowalczyk.

They empty about 12 to 15 bottles per game, and every refill calls for spectacle. “We have to open up the safe whenever we need a new bottle,” says Kowalczyk, “and we make that look like it’s all prestigious.”

“Everything at our tailgate started off as a joke and then it kinda took off,” says Papgelis. He says people might not believe they’re all successful outside the tailgate lot. “But this is just our time to be immature girls and boys.”

It’s All Show

Except for the goofball gags and creative cookware, the crew holds a very relaxed tailgate. Paul the DJ plays music. Games can be enjoyed at nearby tailgates. No one really gets into costumes. “Our regular crew is just normal people having a couple of beers and getting some good food,” says Kowalczyk.

When the season progresses and those upper New York temperatures drop, the clothes change, but not much else. “It’s just less people,” Kowalczyk says. They build fires in big barrels and throw on up to four hoodies under their jerseys. Johnson doesn’t even wear a coat.

It’s a party, no doubt. “Hanging out doing whatever,” Papgelis says. “We’re just a group of guys that throw a really good party, that’s what we really are.”

As for the Bills prospects this season, “They look good,” Kowalczyk says. “If you ask Kenny, he’ll say 19 and 0 every year.”

Papgelis agrees the Bills show promise. “I don’t care who plays quarterback this year, because they’re taking us to the playoffs.”