The story behind the most famous Jell-O shots in America

The annual Men's College World Series Jell-O shot competition at Rocco's has become a local institution and a national sensation

OMAHA, Neb. — The chicken finger tycoon was insistent: He wanted $15,000 worth of Jell-O shots. There was a record that needed breaking.

Pat McEvoy, the longtime bar manager at Rocco’s Pizza and Cantina in Omaha, Nebraska, was skeptical. He was quite used to this type of bombastic behavior in mid-June. The mayhem of the Men’s College World Series attracts a certain type of hollow heavy-hitter with a big mouth and zero follow-through.

As McEvoy explained it: “Everybody says they’re somebody this time of year.”

That’s particularly true at Rocco’s, which sits caddy-corner to Charles Schwab Field, less than 100 yards from the right-field gate. The bar’s annual Jell-O shot competition among the eight schools participating in the MCWS has become a local institution and a national sensation, drawing capacity crowds before, during and after games.

The contest is simple: Whichever of the eight participating fan bases purchases the most booze-soaked gelatin “wins.” Fans, motivated to rep their teams, can’t get enough of it.

Figures are updated thrice daily on a makeshift dry-erase board tacked above the bar. And the numbers are staggering. Last year, Rocco’s sold 95,030 shots during the 10-day tournament. At five bucks a pop, that brought in $475,150 on Jell-O alone. The bar donates $1.50 from each shot sold to food banks associated with the eight participating institutions, in addition to a local organization.

The gelatinous schtick capitalizes upon the party-like atmosphere of the MCWS, a tailgate disguised as a baseball tournament. And Rocco’s, with its Jell-O shot competition, has become an essential part of the entire Omaha experience.

One cannot watch a day’s worth of MCWS coverage on ESPN and not hear mention of Jell-O. Sucking down a cup of congealed sugar and vodka is the Omahan equivalent of kissing the Blarney Stone. The gelatin-guzzling contest is equal parts inspiring, outrageous, gross and engrossing. It exploits, champions and reinforces the absurdities and essentialities of college sports fandom. It's American capitalism in its rawest, most bizarre, most addictive form.

And recently, it has become a vehicle for big-shot boosters to show off the scope of their commitment. That’s where the chicken tender tycoon comes in.

Last summer, Todd Graves, the 52-year-old co-founder of chicken chain Raising Cane’s and an enormous supporter of LSU athletics, was intent on blasting by the all-time shot record of 18,777, set by Ole Miss fans in 2022. It was a perfect, generational set of circumstances. Graves’ beloved Tigers, led by All-Americans Paul Skenes and Dylan Crews, were in Omaha for the first time in six years with a historically good team. No fan base flocks to Eastern Nebraska like LSU and its 19 MCWS appearances. Morale was high. A national championship felt inevitable.

To that point in the Jell-O showdown, the purple and gold had already tallied more than 14,000 shots. Graves wanted to push LSU over the top, so he summoned McEvoy and requested a 3,000-shot order for the following day.

“I thought he was messing with me,” McEvoy recounted, “until he whipped out two black Amex cards and said, ‘You can run it all right now.’”

By the next morning, 3,000 somehow became 5,000. And once Graves learned that the Guiness World Record for the largest round of shots ordered by a single person was 5,093 — a mark set by country music outlaw Waylon Jennings — he raised his order to 6,000.

Over the next few days, other LSU boosters, not wanting to be outdone, upped the ante even further. Rounds as large as 8,000 shots were ordered. And after outlasting the University of Florida in the finals to win the national championship, the Tigers players strolled across the street to Rocco’s to join in the revelry. When the dust finally settled, LSU supporters had purchased a ludicrous 68,888 Jell-O shots.

One year later, the memory of Rocco’s 2023 summer romance with Baton Rouge endures. As I entered the premises on Saturday morning, McEvoy was in the process of hanging a bright yellow, signed Dylan Crews jersey above the bar in Rocco’s new “Jell-O Shot Room.”

Penned on the uniform is a message from the LSU legend:

“To Rocco’s: Thanks for the memories!”

All American. Gold Glove. Golden Spikes Award. 2023 National Champion! Jell-O Shot Champs! #68,888

Dylan Crews

Proverbs 3:5-6

It is perhaps the only piece of memorabilia in baseball history to feature both the word “Jell-O” and a Bible verse.

(Courtesy of Rocco's, Jake Mintz/Yahoo Sports)
(Courtesy of Rocco's, Jake Mintz/Yahoo Sports)

The origin story

This bizarre tale began in 2011, during the first MCWS held at Omaha’s sparkling, new downtown stadium. A group of rowdy Florida fans, their team losing across the street, requested rally shots. Somebody working the bar, then known as Goodnight’s, threw together a custom concoction to appease the thirsty Gator faithful. That moment stuck in McEvoy’s mind.

The following year, inspired by an experience watching Nebraska play Creighton in men's basketball at a local dueling piano bar, McEvoy dreamed up elaborate, university-specific shots, gave them off-color names and made it into a competition. It was fun and quirky and got some play on the local news, but it was far from the phenomenon it has since become.

Everything changed in 2019, when Goodnight’s reopened under new management as Rocco’s. The new owner, Kevin Culjat, loved McEvoy’s idea of creating a school-based, booze-related competition, but he wanted to simplify the process. Specialty drinks required too much prep time, too many ingredients and way, way too much glassware. So Culjat recommended premade Jell-O shots, which could be purchased in bulk and didn’t necessitate trashing the surplus.

And so, the contest was born.

That first year, Arkansas put up a respectable 864. When the MCWS returned after COVID-19 in '21, Mississippi State fans threw down 2,965. Things really exploded in 2022, after McEvoy started a Twitter account to post regular updates on the scoreboard. That’s when he realized the whole thing had surpassed even his wildest expectations.

“I had 17 followers on that Monday,” he remembered. “I had 17,000 by Saturday. Before the week was out, I was like, ‘Oh, people very much care about this.’”

Upgrading from liquid liquor to premade shots revolutionized things for Rocco’s, but there were still problems.

They sold 31,215 shots in 2022, but the bar could sell only what it could acquire, and McEvoy, Culjat and Co. were struggling to keep up with demand. The pace was borderline unsustainable. Culjat said he was having buckets of Jell-O shots shipped in from as far away as Minneapolis and Denver. The bar ran out anyway.

With the 2023 MCWS on the horizon, Rocco’s turned to the future.

They were contacted by Jevo, a company that manufactures and sells automated gelatin beverage machines. The contraptions are a testament to American ingenuity, an impressive and hilarious feat of engineering: It’s a Keurig coffee maker but for jiggly booze. The company also boasts something called “Squeeze and Suck Technology” for its patented cups that allow the consumer to avoid using their fingers to scoop out the good stuff.

For Rocco’s, teaming up with Jevo represented an opportunity to (1) fully customize the shots by team, flavor and color (2) control the entire supply chain and (3) significantly upgrade the taste. The bar isn’t actually using Jevo’s machines during the MCWS; the demand is still too high. Instead, Jevo employees work overnight on site at Rocco’s to manufacture all the shots for the following day, mixing fluorescent concoctions in enormous, stainless steel cauldrons.

It must be noted that not everyone loves the Jell-O shot challenge.

Critics have battered Rocco’s for selling overpriced shots, many of which are never consumed. During the Great LSU Surge of 2023, hundreds of beverages ended up in the trash. Alcohol laws require the shots to be consumed on site. Passing out tens of thousands of cups in a relatively small space is not a simple endeavor.

Also, the contest, which began as a way for schools to champion how many fans traveled to Omaha, ballooned last year into something of a pissing match between mega-rich college sports boosters. Instead of throwing big money around to finance facilities or bolster NIL funds, business people and entrepreneurs can gather that same influence by buying Jell-O. For some, that dynamic has robbed the schtick of its luster.

But most people don’t care. The whole thing is just as dumb and enjoyable as it has always been. The numbers reflect that, even if what LSU “accomplished” in 2023 will never be replicated. Some Tigers fans tried to hop in on the action again this year, even though the team didn’t reach Omaha. But McEvoy knew that would open a can of worms, so he set up a way for LSU die-hards to donate directly to food banks.

“LSU fans wanted to be up there,” McEvoy said. “We were like, no. Otherwise, you know, I could put, like, Yahoo Sports up there and have you guys call in. That wouldn’t be fair.”

The tally is still impressive. By Wednesday afternoon, less than a week into the event, 42,582 total shots had been sold, with the University of Tennessee in the lead. That’s $212,910 of Jell-O sold, 30% of which ($63,873) will be donated to charity.

The simple fact is College World Series goers are going to find alcohol — a lot of it. According to the people who run Rocco’s, some of that money might as well go to a good cause.

Said McEvoy: “We understand that it’s a silly, silly thing. But it’s still fun.”