It’s Monday happy hour at Promises bar on Sixth and National in Walker’s Point. There’s a stage, empty at this hour, that regularly hosts live music. In the opposite corner there’s a lineup of a snack vending machine, pinballs, a prize-winning game called Bonus Hole, an ATM. And then, if you’ve done any bar-hopping in Wisconsin, a familiar machine.
The Ticket Master is a glass-faced white square box filled with stacks of cardboard pieces. To play, you insert a dollar (or 20) and hit one of the flashing buttons on the bottom to get what you came for: a game piece called a pull-tab.
On the back of the little card is a series of tabs you oh-so-satisfyingly unzip to reveal rows of slot-machine-style icons – fruits, clovers, horseshoes. You’re looking for a tab to read WIN; the following tab will tell you how much cash you’ve won, paid out from the bar till. You won’t be able to quit your day job, but you might get the satisfaction of a small victory.
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At a booth in Promises, two friends, Jason Ellis and Ellie Piper, are enjoying a drink, a pile of pull-tabs in front of them. “I think it started out of convenience, because the machine was right there,” Piper says of her social group’s pull-tab habit. “It’s just sorta nice when you’re sitting there sipping your beer and your buddy comes over and spreads tabs on the table and you start plucking away at them.” She notes the social aspect – something fun to do together, with small winnings usually going to buy more pull-tabs or another round of beer for the group.
Today was a bust – no winners. Piper says she’s never won more than five bucks, but Ellis says he’s hit the highest possible payout, $250, twice. He used one of those winners to buy an air-conditioner. “It’s not a humongous amount of money, but you still feel rewarded. It’s a very reasonable amount,” Ellis says.
When Promises co-owner Joey Turbo opened the bar last year, the decision to get a pull-tab machine was partly nostalgia – he remembers going out with his family, who like to gamble, and getting pull-tabs at the bar. He notes that they are a “Wisconsin thing” and sell well, especially with what he calls the “frozen pizza effect” – when baking a pizza in a bar, the aroma hits drunken nostrils and soon everyone in the bar orders one. Same thing with the squeals and glee from a pull-tab hit.
“Someone wins a $25 pull-tab, and then there’s a line up to the machine,” Turbo explains. When asked how many pull-tabs Promises sells on a good week, he holds up his hand and spreads his fingers a few inches to indicate a fat stack of game pieces: “About that many”– around 200 to 300. The bar’s cut is about a third of the sale price, Turbo says.
For all their ubiquity in Wisconsin bars, one might wonder how pull-tabs (or at least their payouts) are legal, considering all the restrictions on gambling in just about every other form. When asked if he knows, Turbo thinks for a moment, then admits he’s not quite sure – maybe something to do with the three-tier setup with the pull-tab manufacturer (who also reimburses for the winning payouts), the distributor (in Promises’ case, Mitchell Novelty Co., which provides pinball machines and other games to bars) and the bar itself. Ellis wasn’t sure, either; he thought it might have something to do with charity because some proceeds from special pull-tabs go to organizations like the USO, VFW and cancer facilities. Piper admitted “it never even occurred to me” and guessed it was the “low stakes.”
None of that lands on the real truth behind Wisconsin’s unofficial – and, yes, legal – lottery. That story lies along a winding path that included a police raid, court dates and a loophole carved out by one man who saw a path to a smooth retirement.
A FLAT, CREAM-COLORED STRIP of offices sits tucked away on Oconomowoc’s Executive Drive, a typical business park. Off on the side of the building is the headquarters for Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps. The one-room office has a few desks and filing cabinets, and one wall is plastered with enlarged art from pull-tab pieces and photos from events. This is the center of operations for Wisconsin’s pull-tab empire, such as it is. The lone full-time employee here is Dayton Young, a tall, athletic 32-year-old with sandy blonde hair and a salesman’s smile who’s the grandson of the company’s founder, Walter Bohrer.
Wally, as his friends called him, worked at his family business, Bohrer’s Meat Packing, as a young man, but in 1963 he took up a new side hustle when he bought a couple of jukeboxes and began distributing them to local taverns. By 1969, Bohrer had purchased Hastings Distributing, which maintained and operated jukeboxes and coin-operated amusement games.
In 1995, when Bohrer was in his 60s, he had his idea for what Young calls his “retirement hobby business” – one that he worked at up until his death in March of 2022. “He was kinda my hero,” Young says, smiling at his memory. “Personality-wise, he had patience, immense knowledge, [was] friendly. Not a jack of all trades but a master of all he did.”
Bohrer’s twilight venture – one that would become a fixture of the Wisconsin tavern landscape – was inspired by something from his youth: promotional milk caps.
Who Does the Most Pulls?
There’s no doubt pull-tabs are a part of Wisconsin tavern culture. But they’re legal in about 20 states throughout the Midwest and elsewhere, places like Georgia and Florida. They’re often known by regional brand names – Pickle Cards and Popp-Opens, for example.
The state that plays the most though, doncha know, is our neighbor Minnesota. “They’re real pull-tab players there,” Dayton Young says. “They sell more pull-tabs than the rest of the country combined. But we’re catching up.”
“When you would get a delivery from the milkman, there would be caps on your jug and you would peel them back, there were little pull-tabs on the caps,” Young explains. “You might win a free pound of butter or a quart of ice cream.” Bohrer began saving some of these milk cap promotions – his collection is still on display in a glass case in the Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps office.
In the 1990s, there was a fad where youngsters developed a somewhat similar hobby to Bohrer, collecting pogs. The name and trend originate from Hawaii, where POG (passionfruit, orange, guava) juice carton caps were used to play a stacking game. The phenomenon quickly spread as both a game and collector item, with companies from coast to coast making promotional pogs or selling ones with popular cartoon characters.
In other words, pogs became something that had inherent value, and this was where Bohrer saw the loophole for his pull-tab idea. Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps argues that the circular designs on the front of the ticket can be cut out and saved as a collectible pog. That is what the customer is buying; the cash prizes are merely a promotion to assist in selling these “souvenir milk caps” – similar to McDonald’s popular Monopoly sweepstakes, or prizes under soda caps.
Such promotions have rules, of course. The relevant state statute, 100.16, lists seven conditions to meet the status of an “in-pack chance promotion,” including giving free game pieces on request, not misrepresenting the odds of winning and keeping records of prizes valued at $100 or more – all of which Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps adheres to, Young says.
“You can play our tickets, no purchase necessary,” Young explains. “You can get a form online or at the locations that are selling our tickets from behind the bar. If you mail it in to us, our clearinghouse will send you a free chance or a free game. If you win, we mail the money.” He admits not many people play pull-tabs via the mail-in free chance; they’re more likely to be bought for a buck spur of the moment while enjoying a beer.
As pull-tabs proliferated, one important party that wasn’t buying this explanation was the Wisconsin Department of Justice. On Jan. 11, 1999, after receiving calls from people claiming that Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps was engaging in illegal gambling, police raided Bohrer’s offices. The company’s pull-tab inventory and even Bohrer’s vintage milk cap collection were confiscated. He decided to go to court, seeking a declaratory judgment that his pull-tabs were legal.
“He knew it was all going to be part of the process,” Young says. “He said, ‘if they’re illegal, then let’s have my day in court and prove they are.’”
The Milwaukee County Circuit Court ruled in Bohrer’s favor in June of 2000, a decision upheld on appeal in 2001. As the appellate judges wrote in their ruling: “While commenting that it was ‘inclined to agree with the [state], that the sale of [Bohrer’s pull-tab pieces] is a thinly veiled lottery,’ the [circuit] court concluded that Bohrer had ‘taken great pains to craft this promotion so it would conform to [Statute] 100.16,’ and had succeeded in doing so. We agree.”
Wisconsin Statute 100.16 (1)
“No person shall sell or offer to sell anything by the representation or pretense that a sum of money or something of value, which is uncertain or concealed, is enclosed within or may be found with or named upon the thing sold, or that will be given to the purchaser in addition to the thing sold, or by any representation, pretense or device by which the purchaser is informed or induced to believe that money or something else of value may be won or drawn by chance by reason of the sale.”
Despite the ruling, one state agency that is not happy with pull-tabs as a legal de facto lottery is the Department of Revenue.
A 2008 audit estimated that pull-tabs siphon $23 million away per year from the state’s lottery, says Patty Mayers, communications director for the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, which has overseen the Wisconsin Lottery since its inception in 1988 and also investigates cases of illegal gambling. “Any lottery market share diverted to pull-tab games, whether operating illegally or legally, is money that does not go to property tax relief,” she says.
Mayers suggests that Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps’ win in court was a longshot – especially its pog defense.
“The company argued that the pogs were used in children’s games and saved by collectors,” Mayers says. “It appears the state did not dispute that assertion at the time, although one could certainly question whether it is still true now. The company therefore argued – and the Wisconsin Court of Appeals agreed – that the pogs fell into the exception for legal in-pack chance promotion under section 100.16(2).”
“It’s not baseball cards by any stretch,” Young says of the status of pog collecting. “But there are people who do collect them.”
Adding further doubt to the pog argument is Bohrer’s failed attempt to expand into Minnesota (where pull-tabs are even more popular than here), with a scratch-off game that also had a collectible pog on it. He lost a court case there and was cut off from that robust market in 2004. That court didn’t buy that the company’s “milk caps” were souvenirs worth anything – and, as such, violated Minnesota’s law prohibiting lotteries.
“An expert testified on behalf of the state of Minnesota that the milk caps at issue were valueless,” Mayers notes. “The court in Minnesota concluded that the words ‘in-package chance promotion’ meant that the promotion had to be attached to the sale of a legitimate, valuable product.”
HERE IN WISCONSIN, our court’s decision stands, and after his legal victory, Bohrer’s business steadily grew. Through a network of distributors, you can find pull-tabs in every corner of the state. Some are in convenience and grocery stores, or even laundromats and salons, but Young says “99% are in taverns.”
Young is cagey about just how big a company Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps has become. Asked how many pull-tabs it sells each year, he says: “I’d rather not say, to be honest,” though he acknowledges that the number is in the “millions.” After paying winners, he says, the company’s margin is around 2%.
Young notes that the company’s success has led to imitation pull-tabs that he believes aren’t meeting the legal requirements his business takes pains to fulfill.
“There’s only two legal ones in the state, Wisconsin Lottery and Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps,” Young says. “There are all sorts of unregulated, illegitimate ones out there.” Young compares the pull-tab business to the Wild West due to what he described as loose enforcement because regulators “have bigger fish to fry.”
Young enjoys the variety of running the small company; he’s Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps’ “janitor, accountant, delivery boy, it’s something different every day.” He gets to travel around the state and “meets a lot of good people.” Over the last couple years, Young says, the pull-tab business is better than ever before.
“Since COVID, the volume has gone up tremendously; I don’t know, I guess people just know what they are now,” Young says. “It’s bar dice, it’s video poker and it’s pull-tabs. It’s something to do, a little recreation you can do socially with your friends as you’re eating your burger and having a beer. They’re quite popular.”
And, at least according to Wisconsin’s courts, legal.
The Art of the Pull
MATT KRAUSE’S art is played and made in Wisconsin. About three years ago, after viewing a pile of discarded pull-tabs, the Sheboygan artist envisioned his Mona Lisa – a topographical map of Wisconsin using the cartoonish, slot-machine-like icons on the game pieces like pixels. He enlisted local bars and waitstaff to save losing pull-tabs for him. Happy with the resulting piece, he wanted to keep going.
Krause takes each pull-tab and carefully cuts and separates the colored shapes into Tupperware containers. The blockiness of his medium makes art inspired by classic video games like Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. a natural fit, and he’s also celebrated Wisconsin pride with recreations of the Packers and Bucks logos.
The first step of each design is created on a grid on his computer as a roadmap that tells him how many of each colored tile he needs, then it’s time to hit the bars. Most people are looking for the WIN under their tab, but Krause covets a different tile – the relatively rare blue icons required to make a sky or water, like in his renderings of the Sheboygan lighthouse and a surfing Pikachu. “Light blue diamonds – I’m always looking for those,” he says.
Next is the time-consuming process of gluing the colored pieces on a board to match his design. “I cut and glue everything by hand, which stinks for this process.” Krause laughs. “But it keeps it unique. There’s no real way to make it efficient without putting up with it.”
So far, he’s created about 30 to 40 pieces, some of them commissions. He’s also led a workshop that included DIY kits that have a grid and the necessary pieces to puzzle together your own 10-by-10-inch pull-tab masterpiece. In addition to physical pieces, he also makes digital pull-tab portraits using scans of pieces. pulltabcardboardcreations.com
Tea Krulos has covered sturgeon intrigue, Lake Michigan’s fishery and Riverwest’s Falcon Bowl for Milwaukee Magazine.