Pinto Ron knows how to party. Otherwise known as Ken Johnson, the 64-year-old is a 35-year Buffalo Bills season ticket holder. He’s also perhaps the most notorious member of the Bills Mafia, the crazed New York fan base known for leaping onto tables before football games. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson had attended 423 straight Bills games—home and away—since 1994. Over the years, he’s also thrown some of the wildest tailgate parties in Bills history, gathering hundreds of fans around his beat-up red Ford Pinto to eat, drink, and scream obscenities about the other team.
The Pinto is an esteemed gathering place; it’s also the inspiration behind his nickname, which Johnson told GQ was the result of inaccurate reporting after a journalist listed his name as “Ron Johnson” in an article. “Then, it sort of spread around and I fought it for a few years and finally gave up,” Johnson told GQ. “You can call me what you want. Pinto Ron, Pinto Kenny, Kenny, whatever.”
The Pinto also serves as a mobile cabinet of curiosities—specifically, what Johnson calls his “relics,” or once-edible mementos from Bills seasons gone by. Take, for example, the jug of milk that’s been sitting in the car since 1992. “It belongs to the guy who parks next to me,” Johnson says. “That’s Scotty’s milk, and he won’t take it back.” Johnson keeps the milk in good shape, pouring the sediment into new jugs every few years when the old ones start to leak.
Then, of course, there’s Johnson’s Opening Day bacon fat collection. “We put a saw blade on the Pinto to cook bacon,” Johnson explains. “The fat runs down the blade and forms a layer on the front of the car, then freezes, almost like stalactites.” When the weather warms up, the fat melts—and Johnson adds the drippings to his collection.
While the pandemic put a dent in Johnson’s pregame festivities, making it imprudent to, say, drink 100-proof cherry liqueur out of a bowling ball, he remains the nation’s foremost tailgate expert. With that in mind, I asked Pinto Ron for his tried-and-true tailgate tips just in time for the Bills’ upcoming playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Takeout: What are the core components of a successful tailgate?
Ken Johnson: If you’re from Buffalo, chicken wings are the biggest requirement. And it can’t be just any kind of wing—it’s gotta be a Buffalo wing deep-fried in Frank’s hot sauce and butter with bleu cheese. Bleu cheese, not ranch; if you’ve got ranch, you’ll be run out of Buffalo. Aside from that, I like simple fare. I’m a burger, dogs, and sausage kind of guy, myself.
I’ll say this: You’re not gonna see fried zucchini at a Bills tailgate. I had never seen a fried vegetable until I went to a game in San Francisco. I was like, what the hell is this?
TO: What’s the worst thing you’ve ever eaten at a tailgate?
KJ: I made something called daiquiri dogs—basically, hot dog daiquiris—that didn’t work out at all. I brought a blender to the tailgate, threw in some daiquiri mix, tossed some hot dogs in there, and blended it all up. They’d blend up really good—you’d barely see the little hot dog pieces—but it still grossed everybody out.
My second-biggest disaster involved a file cabinet. I brought it to a tailgate in 1999 and wanted to use it like a dessert oven. So I was trying to bake cookies in it, bake a pie, but I just couldn’t pull it off.
In the end, Pizza Pete (Note: “Pizza Pete” refers to the current keeper of the tailgate file cabinet) takes it home with him, puts a small hibachi grill in the lower drawer, puts a pizza directly on the grill, and sticks a medicine cabinet full of charcoal on top of the cabinet to keep the heat in. He pulled it off, so now we’ve got file cabinet pizza at the tailgates, along with baked potatoes that we make in the charcoal medicine cabinet.
TO: You’re known for a very special condiment-related ceremony at every tailgate. Walk us through that.
KJ: You’re talking about the Ketchup Opening Ceremony. This is a procedure that’s evolved over about 30 years. It’s always at 11:30, or an hour and a half before kickoff. I’ve got a bunch of people standing on the roof of a van with ketchup and mustard; I’ve got a guy that acts like an emcee to warm up the crowd. Sometimes we’ll have as many as 800 or 1,000 people gathered to watch. I’ll start out way at the back of the crowd with a burger in my hand, and I’ll push through looking confused. The idea is that somebody gave me a burger and there’s no ketchup on it. Then [the people on the van] unload on me.
For every ceremony, we use three 64-ounce ketchups and pre-loaded caulk guns filled with mustard. I always wear a white Bills shirt so the color really shows. I’ve got between eight and 10 of those shirts, but I don’t have time to wash them each week. I’ll just take the T-shirt off, put it in a plastic bag, and throw it in the freezer until March. Then I clean them all at once and bleach them so I can start the whole thing over again.
TO: You’re also known for taking shots out of a bowling ball.
KJ: First of all, I call it a 16-pound shot glass, not a bowling ball. We always use a cherry liqueur called Wiśniówka. There are two kinds—the kind made in Poland, which is 80 proof, and the kind made in Tennessee, which is 100 proof and tastes like shit.
I will say, the thumb hole of a bowling ball is only about two-thirds of a shot. If you’re staggering around the tailgate, it’s probably the 20 beers you drank that got you trashed, not the bowling ball shots. Either way, I like to make sure people have a few drinks before they taste my food.
I usually have a full-time bartender out in front of the Pinto, but we changed that with COVID. Putting a thousand pairs of lips on a bowling ball is a bad look, even if you disinfect it. So what I did this year was make it very limited. I parked a car about four or five spots away from the Pinto, and we used that car as a speakeasy. I’ll only take a few people—family, close friends—to the speakeasy each game so they can get their bowling ball shots.
TO: How does one prepare, physically, for a day of extreme tailgating?
KJ: We’re out there for seven or eight hours—from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.—so it’s important to spread your drinks out over a long period of time. The younger people haven’t learned that yet, but the older people have really learned the art of nursing a drink. Personally, I don’t drink a lot of beer. I’ll keep a beer in my hand, but it’s more of a prop so people think I’m drinking a lot. I do shots, usually between seven and 10 during that eight-hour period.
TO: What are your plans for this weekend’s playoff game against the Chiefs?
KJ: There’s a very organized group in Kansas City called the KC Bills Backers, and they’ve secured a private parking lot that holds about 200 cars. I don’t bring the Pinto to away games, so I think I’m gonna roam around and mooch off of everyone else.