During the last year, hardly any small business or organization has been spared from the effects of COVID-19. Non-profit organizations that rely on in-person events as fundraisers have been hit particularly hard. One local organization, Wheeling Health Right, has taken lessons learned in 2020 and transformed them into a new event to benefit not just the organization, but local restaurants as well.
The event, “Just Wing It!,” aims to answer the question: Who has the best wings in the Ohio Valley? Twenty local restaurants have come together to support Wheeling Health Right by entering their wings into a contest. Wheeling Health Right Executive Director Kathie Brown says the goal is to help the restaurants boost sales in addition to raising money for the organization.
“We anticipate ‘Just Wing It!’ as not just a fundraiser for Wheeling Health Right but as a timely business booster for the local restaurants that are struggling right now,” Brown said. “This overlaps the Super Bowl, and we’re conducting it during a traditionally slow time for the restaurant business. We truly hope this helps.”
Since a more traditional in-person cook-off event isn’t possible, “Just Wing It!” will run in a unique way. During the next few weeks, the public is invited to order from each restaurant and ask to purchase their respective wing entries. For an additional $1 donation, the customer can place a vote for the wings they purchased, which will count toward the restaurant’s total in the “People’s Choice” category. The donation and a small percentage of the wing sales will go to Wheeling Health Right. Customers who visit all of the entered restaurants can present their receipts to Wheeling Health Right to enter a drawing to receive gift cards from the participating restaurants.
After the nearly month-long public judging, the event will finish up with a live-streamed event at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb 24. Judges will meet for a closed event at Wheeling Island Racetrack and Casino to sample the wing entries and announce the final winners. Wings will be judged in the following five categories: Wet (non-hot); Dry (non-hot); Hot; Specialty (the wing restaurant is “known for”) and Unique (not a menu item, strange ingredients welcome).
Owners of Hangover BBQ, Billy and Stephanie Litman, will be entering their wings in four of the five categories. While this is the first “cook-off” event they’ve entered, Hangover is consistently a front-runner in other area “best of” lists. Their wings are much different from your average chicken wing.
“Unlike the traditional breaded and fried wing, our wings are brined, smoked and then flash-fried,” said Stephanie Litman. “But our house rub really makes them stand out!”
The Wheeling business is currently working to expand into catering and event space but did not want to miss the opportunity to support the community through this event.
“We have been involved with Wheeling Soup Kitchen fundraisers as well as some others,” said Litman. “We thought this was a great chance to help raise money for Wheeling Health Right and showcase our smoked wings in this community event.”
Another local establishment, Belmont Brewerks, is looking forward to the opportunity to participate in the contest and help the community, recognizing the importance of Wheeling Health Right as more people need access to charitable health care following the closing of Ohio Valley Medical Center and East Ohio Regional Hospital in 2019.
“Health Right is one of these organizations in the community that helps people get through times like these,” said Belmont Brewerks partner Nicole Stephens. “Belmont Brewerks will always support organizations that help people in the Ohio Valley community.”
Stephens continued. “We are a restaurant that is a gathering place for people to come together and have a great time and put aside the everyday stresses of the real world. We also believe in our core mission of helping to revitalize our community and improve the lives of our people during good times and times of adversity.”
Just Wing It! is Belmont Brewerks’ first cook-off contest, and the restaurant will be entering all five categories this year. The “Unique” category entry will feature a blueberry sauce, which is used in their Purple Elephant beer.
• Wheeling native Jennifer Materkoski is a graduate of West Liberty University and Kent State University, where she earned a master’s degree in journalism and mass communications. Before beginning her current role as director of communications and employee engagement for a global business process outsourcing firm, Jennifer worked in local media and non-profit communications. She is a current board member of Generation Wheeling, also chairing the organization’s Work Committee. She lives in Wheeling with her husband, Rich, and her three children: Mason, Mercer and Miller.