Stephen Melnikoff was feeling lucky when he noticed the poster at the checkout counter and plunked down $100 for a chance.
But the Sears repairman had almost forgotten about the raffle when the phone rang Friday night. The voice at the other end of the line kept repeating that, yes, he had just won a restaurant.
"I couldn't believe it," recalled Melnikoff, who bought the winning ticket in the long-awaited raffle of Captain Gilley's Seafood restaurant on a whim.
The contest nearly went up in smoke when the Orchard Beach Fire Department failed to sell enough tickets early last week. With only four days left to hawk 400 tickets, Bruce Smith, the assistant chief who arranged the unusual raffle, had to admit the odds looked grim.
At the last minute, Bucky Lynch stepped in and saved the day. The owner of the 11-store Lucky convenience market chain bought 177 leftover tickets to let the show go on.
Lynch already was betting $10,000 on a shot at keeping his table loaded with fresh crabs. But he completely forgot to throw the extra 177 tickets into the hat.
"I just got caught up in the excitement, I guess," said Lynch, who consoled himself that his $27,700 "went to a good cause."
Melnikoff bought his ticket while waiting to pay for his groceries at a Lucky store. The 36-year-old Arbutus, Baltimore County, man is unsure whether he will run Captain Gilley's or be forced to sell the restaurant on Nabbs Creek Road to pay taxes on his prize.
"If I don't have to pay taxes, I'll be jumping up and down," he said.
"I'll be there running the place."
An appliance repairman who used to run a deli on Wilkens Avenue in Baltimore County, Melnikoff said he might have to pay between $30,000 and $80,000 in taxes for Captain Gilley's. He now owns the entire $264,823 restaurant and carryout, complete with its furniture, kitchen equipment and even the silverware.
Smith came up with the idea of raffling off Captain Gilley's while talking with the owner over beers last spring. The owner, who wanted to sell his business for personal reasons and asked not to be identified, seized the chance to kill two birds with one stone.
By running a raffle, Smith hoped to cover the cost of the restaurant and also raise $450,000 to buy a fire engine, floodlight and air masks for the fire department. When asked whether the snags would spell the end of his raffling career, however, Smith shook his head. The 40-year-old raffling pro said he plans to offer a car the next time, but "nothing as big as a restaurant again."