Catonsville, MD-9/3/15--An unidentified man purchases lottery tickets from owner, Rajesh Patel, known as "Riche," of the Soda Pop Shop mart, the state's No. 1 seller of lottery tickets.
Catonsville, MD-9/3/15--An unidentified man purchases lottery tickets from owner, Rajesh Patel, known as "Riche," of the Soda Pop Shop mart, the state's No. 1 seller of lottery tickets. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

The regulars at the Soda Pop Shop Mart had heard the story before — how Bill Jenkins accidentally played the same set of Keno numbers twice in 2012, leaving him with two $10,000 winning tickets instead of one.

So there were knowing smiles inside the Catonsville convenience store last week as the retired truck driver recounted how the terminal initially seemed to reject the first $10 ticket, prompting him to select the eight charmed numbers again.

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"And he ain't won $15 since!" another player said jokingly.

Jenkins' happy accident is part of the lore of the shop, where players love swapping anecdotes and wisecracking about big wins and near-misses. There's always plenty to talk about: The store averages nearly $116,000 a week in lottery sales and sold $6.2 million of the tickets in the fiscal year ending June 30, both tops among Maryland's 4,554 lottery retailers.

The store, which relies on homespun ambience created by scores of everyday players such as Jenkins, was the only outlet in the state to surpass $500,000 in commissions from selling and cashing tickets during the year, according to records obtained in a Public Information Act request.

Five of the state's top 10 lottery sellers are in Prince George's County. Three, including the Soda Pop Shop, are in Baltimore County, and there is one each in Montgomery and Charles counties.

The Soda Pop Shop earned $516,474 in commissions in the fiscal year. No other outlet approached $400,000.

The shop's popularity, according to players and analysts, is based on splashy marketing, its easily accessible but densely populated location, big payouts — it sold a $250,000 instant ticket winner in 2010 — and, especially, the atmosphere nurtured by owner Rajesh Patel and the players.

The walls of the shop are lined with bright "Maryland Lottery" logos. At the center is a large round table where players sit and fill out tickets with pencils, muse about the Ravens' season or tease each other about losing money.

It has the feel of a neighborhood barbershop — albeit one where cash is constantly changing hands.

"It's just a beautiful atmosphere," said Jenkins, of Randallstown. "No roughnecks coming in, no stupidness. We sit down, we chitchat, we raise Cain with each other. It's all good."

While most of the top lottery retailers in the state are generally located in urban or suburban areas that aren't affluent, John Martin, an assistant director overseeing lottery sales at the Lottery and Gaming Control Agency, said it would be a mistake to pigeonhole lottery players.

"We had about 50-60 of our top retailers sell $2 million or more in lottery sales for the fiscal year. If I just look at the litany of places, it's places like Silver Spring, Annapolis, Frederick, Gaithersburg. And obviously Baltimore," Martin said. "The reality is, we're in population centers. We're in areas that are highly trafficked. Are some of those inner-city locations? Absolutely, because that's where the population is. You fish where the fish are."

One thing lottery players tend to be is older, so the agency is taking measures to try to appeal more to players ages 18 to 34 — a group that doesn't play as often as their elders.

"The younger folks don't buy tickets," said Dawn Nettles, a self-described lottery "watchdog" and publisher of the Texas-based Lotto Report. "They've seen their mothers and grandmothers do it. They don't have an interest in it."

Martin said all lotteries — not just Maryland's — "are looking for ways to engage new players, especially the younger demographic."

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The state's lottery revenues are on the rise. The last fiscal year was the first in which Maryland's casino and lottery revenue topped $1 billion.

The lottery recorded sales of $1.76 billion, a 2.2 increase over the 2014 fiscal year. Prizes paid totaled $1.05 billion. The sales gain was fueled by the surging popularity of instant tickets, or "scratch-offs," the sales of which topped $546 million, up nearly 14 percent to a new high.

Sales of most other games in Maryland — including Powerball and Mega Millions, which rely on escalating jackpots to entice players — have slipped.

Lottery revenues can mean thousands of dollars a week for convenience stores, liquor stores, service stations and other lottery dealers. The retailers keep 5.5 percent of sales and receive a 3 percent commission on tickets cashed.

The Soda Pop Shop, true to its name, stocks ample bottles of soda among its many displays of winning tickets, including Jenkins' two $10,000 winners. He said he bought a Dodge Ram truck with the proceeds.

Patel said the store makes more from the lottery — about $8,500 a week — than from beverages.

"Some people just really focus on being good retailers," said Gordon Medenica, director of the Lottery and Gaming Control Agency. "They display the games properly. They promote them. They ask for the sale. They do all the things you want all retailers to do."

Patel, who was born in India, opened the shop with his wife in 1996. He used to sell lunchmeat at the store but abandoned it years ago after Sam's Club and other large competitors moved into the neighborhood.

Patel said his lottery business took off in 2008 when he received permission from the state to begin cashing winning tickets — including those purchased at other locations — up to $5,000. Previously, the store had been authorized to cash tickets only up to $600.

Not only did the new authority enable him to earn more in commissions, it also attracted more people to the shop, where some bonded with Patel and his patrons.

"My customers here are very friendly," he said.

The shop has also benefited from a state program called SalesMaker, which helps top retailers sell their products.

"They get some increased signage, some increased promotional activity," Martin said. "They get a little more hand-holding from us on how their product mix is set up."

Winning tickets above $5,000 must be cashed at a state lottery office. Almost every weekday, at least one winner will arrive at the lottery headquarters in Baltimore, where they are ushered into a reception area. Staff members from the lottery agency will cheer as the winner holds up a mock check on an oversized dry-erase board.

Maryland law doesn't require winners to have their names disclosed publicly. Last month, a $1 million winner in an instant-ticket game positioned the large "check" in front of his face to avoid being recognized in a photo appearing on the agency's website. He had the check made out to "Nittany Lions Fan" to reflect his devotion to Penn State. He bought the ticket at a Baltimore Exxon station.

The Soda Pop Shop is facing increased competition.

In June, the U.S. 40 BP station — less than a mile from the Soda Pop Shop — expanded its lottery sales into an area once used by a mechanic. The station now has special parking for lottery players, a smoking deck and a players' lounge with free coffee and, occasionally, free pizza and snacks.

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Co-owner Shawn Jamal said weekly lottery sales have recently doubled to about $52,000.

"I'm right behind them," he said of the Soda Pop Shop.

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