A corner convenience store in Rosenberg, Texas that reigns as the lottery-selling champion in the Houston area was buzzing Tuesday, selling tickets to eager customers hoping to claim the biggest prize in the Mega Millions drawing since Texas joined the multistate lottery.
A steady stream of traffic trying to cash in on the $155 million jackpot pulled in and out of Rudy's Stop & Shop, at FM 1640 and Damon, a brown brick facade with a small lot of only half a dozen parking spaces.
A line of regular customers like city of Rosenberg street maintenance worker Alfredo Garcia and Fort Bend County Sheriff's Department employee Renee Chaffin plunked down hundreds of dollars to buy almost 2,000 tickets for Tuesday's drawing.
"I'm buying for a pool of my co-workers," Garcia said before rushing back to his waiting truck.
Earlier this month, Texas joined 10 other states to play in Mega Millions, the latest version of a multistate lottery designed to generate jackpots in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Besides Texans, residents of Virginia, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Washington can play.
Tuesday's jackpot was the second largest since Mega Millions started in May 2002. The largest was $183 million, and in the past year, jackpots have averaged $42.3 million. Mega Millions' predecessor, The Big Game, began in 1996 and had a $363 million jackpot in May 2000.
Dolores Conner, who lives in the neighboring city of Richmond, stops twice a day at Rudy's, once in the morning to buy tickets and again in the afternoon to claim her winnings and buy more.
"When I hit that Mega Millions, I expect the red carpet out," joked Conner, who estimated she spends about $100 a week on her tickets, including scratch-offs.
Moiz Merchant, who is originally from India, has owned the store for the past three years. He credited his success to friendly customer service, including providing a jackpot of lottery information.
"We call most of our customers by name. We have the lottery bulletin board with the latest winning numbers. We have records of winning tickets dating back two years," Merchant said.
A trio of outgoing cashiers, who also bake and sell cakes, help operate two lottery machines and two cash registers simultaneously.
Merchant even pays for a separate telephone number with a lottery recording of winning numbers in addition to his regular store telephone. He advertises daily in the Rosenberg newspaper, The Herald-Coaster. The ad features his store's name and winning lottery numbers.
Lottery tickets consume the front counter space. The dozens of red, green, gold, silver and other colored scratch-off tickets, with names like "Break the Bank," compete for attention with the cigarettes stacked behind the cashiers.
But the counter has enough space for a green pseudo-granite plaque proclaiming Rudy's as a top seller of lottery tickets in 2002.
The store sold an average of 28,000 tickets for every eight-week period. Merchant is confident that the store will win the honors again this year after selling 31,000 tickets in December alone. Merchant gets a 5 percent commission from the sales.
Accompanying the plaque is a photo of Merchant shaking hands with a lottery commissioner. Above the photo, Merchant has written in black marker for his customers to see, "With your Help. Thank you."
No customer complains that the dispenser advertising "Hot Cappuchino" has an out-of-order sign taped on it. Instead, they arrive quickly, chat a bit and then it's down to business picking their numbers or tickets and pulling out the cash. They leave, waving goodbye as they clutch a handful of tickets and perhaps a soda or gallon of milk and fresh-baked cake.
That flow of people in and out of the glass front door -- adorned with a neon blue state of Texas with gold letters advising "Play Lottery" -- is what made Rudy's the top ticket-seller in the Houston area and the fourth largest in the state.
Texas Lottery Commission spokeswoman Kristina Tirloni said Rudy's led the Houston-area pack. Fiesta Marts in Houston on San Jacinto, Bellaire and Airline were next, with eight-week sales averages in the lower 20,000s.
And adding the multistate game means more customers, Merchant said.
"Mega Millions has definitely helped to boost ticket sales. I'm up by 10 percent this year," Merchant said as he opened his front door for a customer coming in with a metal walker.
"How are you?" he asked the elderly man and walked back in the store with him.