A week after he donated television sets for 350 rooms in a medical center, restaurateur Russell J. Salvatore is playing Santa again.
Salvatore, known for the flashy Transit Road eating places and hotels he has built, is laying down a sizable chunk of money to buy up the tickets left unsold for Sunday’s Buffalo Bills game.
That means the game against the St. Louis Rams in Ralph Wilson Stadium will be broadcast on television locally, averting a second consecutive blackout. Last Sunday’s 34-18 victory over Jacksonville was the first Bills’ game of the season to be blacked out.
The Bills wouldn’t say exactly how many tickets Salvatore would be buying.
Salvatore himself estimated it would be the same amount or more than the 7,000 to 10,000 tickets he purchased to avoid a blackout two years ago. He acknowledged late Wednesday that he has no idea what the final bill will be. Bills Chief Executive Officer Russ Brandon, Salvatore said, is to get back to him on that.
“Whatever it is, it is,” Salvatore said. “I didn’t ask about the price. It hasn’t hurt me from when I did it two years ago ... It can’t cost me too many steaks.”
Salvatore was able to help the Buffalo Bills purchase the tickets under a policy in which NFL teams can buy their own unsold tickets for 34 cents on the dollar. The purchases can be made to lift a local TV blackout.
Salvatore, who currently owns Russell’s Steaks, Chops & More in Lancaster, said he was in a holiday mood – and also a grateful one – when he decided to write a check to cover the remaining game tickets.
The last time he did so, in 2010, was also in the holiday season.
“It’s such a winner for me,” said Salvatore. “I do it because I enjoy doing it. It’s thanking the people of Buffalo – without them, where would I be?”
“It’s amazing how the Buffalo Bills hit people’s hearts,” he said.
The Bills organization approached Salvatore Monday, both sides said, when it became clear that thousands of tickets would remain unsold.
Salvatore said his answer was an immediate yes.
“I make a lot of money, and I’m not going to put it in my coffin when I go,” he said. “I’m not taking a penny with me when I go.”
At the Bills organization, officials expressed gratitude to the businessman for his generosity.
“The Buffalo Bills and Bills fans everywhere are greatly appreciative of Russ Salvatore and his continued commitment to the franchise,” said Brandon. “He’s been a loyal supporter for many years.”
Ticket sales for Sunday’s game, Brandon explained, were “moving pretty well” heading into November.
“I have to give the credit to our fans. But our ticket sales staff did a tremendous job,” Brandon said. “We had a lot of community-ticket programs invested in this game. We’re honoring high school football this week. That’s been in the hopper for months. We had some group-sales community programs tied in with that.”
But it wasn’t enough to fill the gap, and that was where Salvatore came in.
The restaurant owner said he has season tickets of his own in a nice part of the stadium, but said that he only actually attends a couple of games a year.
“I do go to a few games when the sun is shining,” Salvatore said. “Then I have a couple of big TVs in my [restaurant] lounge – 103-inch, the biggest TVs you can find. I have four of them in my lounge.”
Salvatore said he’s getting 1,000 of the tickets to Sunday’s game, which he says he’ll hand out at the restaurant and around the community to “anyone who wants them, first-come, first-serve.”
He will give a few hundred more to the Erie County Sheriff’s Department, which expects to pass them on to children’s charities. The balance of several thousand more, Salvatore said, he left with the Bills’ front office, which is expected to distribute them to area charities and veterans groups.
As for himself, Salvatore said he will spend Sunday’s game in his restaurant, as usual, catching the game on those giant TVs.
“Let young people go out there and freeze,” he said, laughing.
Late last month, Salvatore donated $195,000 to Erie County Medical Center for the purchase of new flat-screen television sets for some 350 patient rooms.
Due to the gift, ECMC announced it would stop charging patients for the use of in-room TVs.
Salvatore said at the time that he had been treated at the medical center for an injured ankle and wanted to show his appreciation.
Salvatore said Wednesday that he was hearing lots of gratitude from people in Western New York, about the Bills ticket purchase.
“I just came out of a Christmas store, and people were coming up to me saying., ‘Thank you, thank you, Mr. Salvatore,’ ” he said.
“I honestly am a firm believer in that things come back. I have been this way my whole life. I am not a very religious person, but I honestly feel, if you treat people right, the Big Guy in the sky is going to pay attention, and it will come back to you.”
“It’s amazing how it makes you feel inside.”
News Staff Reporters Mark Gaughan and T.J. Pignataro contributed to this story.