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Inside Facebook’s Underground Market for Rare Meat

On invite-only Facebook pages, people gamble real money on the prospect of winning impossible-to-score goods — like an Iberian octopus and A5 Wagyu beef

Late last month, a Facebook user posted a stock image of a charred tentacle resting on a grill, with a prompt to the nearly 4,500 members of the closed group to which they belong. For the low price of $25, they could have a 1-in-10 chance of a rare 6-to-8-pound octopus, caught off the coast of Spain, being overnighted to their home.

What the post didn’t describe, but is a knowingly unspoken rule of the group, is that once they send $25 via Paypal, they must pick a number, zero through nine, and hope that their number hits. They can select multiple numbers (for $25 a piece), or if they simply must have this aquatic delicacy, they can select every number and send the poster $250. 

This is one of numerous secret Facebook groups that acts as a vibrant marketplace for everything from ultra-rare cuts of beef to bunches of stone crabs, to yes, a whole octopus that purportedly tastes better because it has Spanish blood.

Gray market meat selling is one of the newer, more absurd entries in a phenomenon sweeping across Facebook: invite-only pages where people gamble real money on the prospect of winning goods either super-rare or unavailable in their market due to distribution limitations. Need a bottle of Westvleteren 12, a Trappist beer made and sold at an Abbey in northwest Belgium, or a box of Cohibas straight from our longtime adversary, Cuba? There are multiple pages on Facebook that can help you with that, if you know where to look.

The final frontier, though, is meat: perishable, varying in quality, and unless you’re a butcher or a rancher, difficult to identify with 100 percent accuracy.  

It’s a combination of flagrant consumerism, meat fetishism and gray-market capitalism, driven to its most extreme (and extremely delicious) boundary. It’s a place where you’ll find enormous slabs of full-blood Japanese Wagyu brisket with a Beef Marble Score of 9 (out of 12) for $40 per entry, walnut-handled chef’s knives reaching three figures an entry and loaves of some guy’s artisanal sourdough for less than a sawbuck.

And it’s somehow all tied to the results of the Illinois lottery.

* * * * *

Allow me first, though, to explain the “razzle,” which is a raffle, the obfuscation made necessary by the fact that secondary markets for edible items fall somewhere between gray market and completely illegal, and the folks who run these pages don’t want to get shut down by Facebook. (“Doll hairs,” a stand-in for dollars, is another ubiquitous term.) 

The most popular type of razzle is based on the Illinois Pick 3 Plus Fireball Lottery, most commonly (and simply) referred to as a “Fireball.” Every day, at 12:40 p.m. and again at 9:22 p.m. Central, someone at the Illinois State Lottery draws four balls. The first three matter only if you’re actually playing the Illinois lottery, which no one in these groups actually are. The only number that matters is the final one, the Fireball. If your number hits (zero through nine), you’re the winner, and you’re about to get a shiny chef’s knife, wagyu steak or something tangentially related to cooking meat in just a few business days.

I learned about razzles through a private Facebook bourbon group for people in the Central Texas region (roast me if you must). Mostly a place to chat about whiskey, the members there opened my eyes to a much seedier world: the secondary bourbon market. There are Facebook groups devoted to the selling of rare and rare(ish) bottles of whiskey, for upwards of 500 percent over the manufacturers’ price. I even bought a few. I went even deeper and won a few razzles for some cheaper bottles, $10 or $12 a pop. Some hit the mid-triple-digits, and I couldn’t help but wonder who these people were as Venmo transactions proliferated and spots were filled.

But one day, I met up with a guy from the group to deliver him a bottle of New Riff bourbon I bought on a trip home to New Jersey — it’s not yet available in Texas, which is a major draw of these types of groups — and he showed me his phone. “Have you seen this yet?” It was a familiar-looking razzle post, but instead of a bottle of whiskey, it was a kitchen knife. Instead of 10 spots, there were 100. They were all filled. (When there’s an item that’s likely to garner more attention, more spots will be added, and instead of using the Illinois lottery, the seller will use a random number generator to pick a winner.)

My mouth was agape as I grabbed his phone and scrolled. This particular group seemed like something that couldn’t be true, from its whimsical name (that I won’t mention here, because I’m not a cop) to the broad variety of wares — edible and non — sold there. I could stomach sealed bottles of whiskey and beer, but one guy was selling home-made muffins, a razzle that filled within a day. “Yeah, I’ve seen the muffins,” a member of various razzle groups, who I’ll call Gary, tells me. “Breads, pizza dough… some of the homemade stuff I try to stay away from.”

Rick, another user, sticks to the legit stuff in these groups, like delicious-looking sides of beef from Snake River Farms, a ranch in Idaho with steak and pork products that crop up from time to time in the group. “It’s one thing to buy a spot for a razzle where the winner gets a shipment from Snake River Farms,” he explains. “But when someone is shipping something they made at home, I consider it borderline absurd, primarily due to the sanitation and safety concerns.”

As such, he’s primarily only entered some cutlery razzles, plus a few for cast-iron skillets. A few months ago, though, he did win three upper prime angus tomahawk steaks, at 40 ounces a piece. “Those were amazing,” he says. (In all, he adds that he’s spent between $350 and $500 on meat razzles.)

Gary explains that the group popped up as a suggestion on Facebook about a year ago, and he’s been playing ever since, spending money to gamble on steaks, knives and jerky. He’s played less recently, however, because he realized he was in dozens of similar groups — where he was essentially playing online roulette with strangers for beef. (He says he’s “easily” spent more than $1,000 gambling on meat.) “I deleted about 30 groups last week because all of my Facebook has turned into some kind of gambling group,” he says. “I’m in beer groups, wine groups, cigar groups — you name it, people like to razzle on it.”

* * * * *

My sources didn’t have much to offer in the way of motivation for gambling on meat; they already gambled on whiskey and beer, they figured, this was just the next logical step. So I reached out to University of Texas psychology professor Art Markman for a better explanation. “Finding a community, where all the members are people you can talk about this thing you care about that not everyone cares about — there’s a lot of joy you can get out of that,” he explains. 

Specifically, people are psychologically drawn to things they cannot have: Cuban cigars,  export-only releases of whiskey only found in duty-free shops and international liquor stores, specialty and location-specific cuts of meat. “The forbidden has always had an allure, whether there’s a rule against it or it’s something really exclusive,” Markman adds. “Partly, we’re intrigued by why there are rules around things, why there are limitations.” 

He also mentions the 1980s reality show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to illustrate how our brains work when we see visual cues that remind us that we’re — my words — extremely basic. “We have this belief that people have access to stuff that we don’t,” he says. “And we want to feel like we have info other people don’t have.” Thus, the Iberian octopus. “These kinds of gray-market products have the same kind of appeal,” Markman continues. “It’s having this experience that isn’t available to just anyone. Paying a little extra to say you did this thing that most people can’t do creates the same sense of luxury, which in the moment feels pretty great.”

Plus, the gambling component adds a secondary psychological element. Not only does it feel pretty great to buy into an experience outside our normal spheres; it also feels fucking amazing to gamble and win. 

Markman tells me about an experiment that psychology professors often use to explain why people place increasingly higher values on items desired by others within their communities. The professor auctions off a dollar bill. The bids start low, but almost every single time — even the time he tried it in his own class — someone ends up paying more than $1 for the item because of the competitive element. The item takes a backseat to winning, which would explain why someone might bid $44 for a 10 percent chance at winning a 16-pound Kobe AA9+ brisket when you could buy the same item from Snake River Farms for less than half the price of the total paid for 10 spots.

“It also creates, to the extent that there’s a whole bunch of people in the raffle or lottery, a sense of community,” Markman adds. “I’m part of this group that’s really going for this. There’s an interesting group membership component that you can get from that: ‘By buying into this, I’m paying my way into this group.’”

There’s also the obvious correlation between masculinity and meat. A former University of Hawaii professor named Attila Pohlman studied the correlation between manhood and meat consumption in 2018. His finding? “Men routinely incorporate red meat to preempt the negative emotional states caused by threats to masculinity.” 

There’s a similar cultural correlation with gambling. “Men are generally greater risk-takers than women; they tend to be rather proud of it, too,” addiction specialist and former gambling addict Robert Lefever told the BBC in 2018 for an article about how men are seven-and-a-half times more likely to become problem gamblers than women. “I used to boast about how much I’d lost.”

It should come as no surprise then that the active posters in these groups are almost 100 percent male. 

* * * * *

In the past few weeks, an odd trend has emerged in this particular group. What was once a bustling marketplace, with dozens of razzles daily, has become what seems like a direct-sales venture for the admin of the group.

I contacted him and he refused to comment for this story. He also asked me not to use his name or even mention the concept of razzles at all. I decided to honor the initial request, for matters of privacy, but not the second. After all, you can find the razzles if you know where to look; tens of thousands of people belong to various groups that employ them as a means of sale. His reason for refusing to comment on the record was that he was launching a business soon, though he wouldn’t say what the connection between the secret Facebook group and the upcoming business was.

Rick seems to have an idea: “It’s mostly a drop-ship that’s becoming a hands-on operation. I’m not sure I like that.”

Drop-shipping is delivering goods from the producer to the consumer while bypassing traditional distribution. That might be fine for clothing or non-perishable food items, but as Rick notes, that’s not ideal for raw meat. I share his concern. For example, the admin posted a razzle this week for 45-day dry-aged, bone-in U.S. prime meat. The cut, named after his son, is prepared by his master butcher. This seems to be the new business model: direct-to-consumer, custom-cut (and marketed) slabs of meat without the channels normally used for this type of transaction. Essentially, it’s a grocery store. In fact, that Spanish octopus post contains some language that points to this becoming a legitimate business — if you’d like to order direct, just DM him.

I’ll both-sides it, for posterity. Though seemingly less fun now, the group could be beneficial overall. Let’s say you’re a smoker guy. You have a Big Green Egg and a big brown beard. You relish in spending 12 hours slamming hazy IPAs and cooking meat at a temperature just barely above the inferno of our burning planet. Wouldn’t you rather buy all your products from this one guy who seems to know what he’s doing? Or would you risk spending $35 and hope that a random 45-year-old from Wisconsin, who swears his marbled ribeye is “completely off-the-hook,” won’t send you a repackaged sirloin from his local Piggly Wiggly? Not to mention, the muffins and the pizza dough, questionable in both preparation and taste, have disappeared, which is a good thing.

Rick still doesn’t think the admins seem to know what they’re doing, though, especially compared to the professional operations that would crop up in the group before the shift. “I’m wary of the new direction the page is heading where admin(s) bring in cuts (some from overseas), handle them, cut them, pack them and ship out to me (unfrozen at times) versus what I’d consider a licensed, professional operation such as Snake River Farms or Holy Grail” — a company that specializes in online sales of Japanese Kobe beef — “which I can hold accountable for any issues,” he says.

In any case, the group has morphed into what Markman refers to as, essentially, an excuse to have a shared experience with like-minded people. Two weeks ago, a user posted a photo from his local Costco, with boxes of Spanish ham, $59.97 for 14 pounds. He was, in essence, taking the temperature of the group, to see if it was worth buying. Within minutes, folks were weighing in on the potential purchase. One user mentioned that the asterisk on the price tag meant that the item wouldn’t be restocked. Another said that any price ending in the number seven meant that the ham was at or below normal cost. A few excitedly told him that the same ham was priced at $99 near them earlier in the year, and to definitely buy it. 

Markman sees such conversation as tantamount to the group, even moreso than the commercial component. “A lottery creates the conversation, and now you get to talk about all of those aspects of your expertise, like whatever technique you use to smoke the meat,” he explains. “You get to talk about meat with people who care.”

Perhaps this — bragging and bro-ing out about beef — was the group’s logical end. There’s still a commerce element to the site, but it’s taken a backseat to socializing. In some secret corners, maybe Facebook is doing what Mark Zuckerberg allegedly intends to accomplish, in spite of itself. Only now it comes with a side of meat.