Monday, January 29, 2007

Cuisine Concepts at Heart of Taste of the NFL -- AKA "Super Bowl Party...With a Purpose" -- to Tackle Hunger in America

The Company
Cuisine Concepts, LLC
3910 West 50th Street
Edina, MN 55424
Phone: [952] 926-7478

Founded: 1994
Employees: 210

Contact: Wayne Kostroski, Co-Owner, Cuisine Concepts; Founder & Executive Director, Taste of the NFL:

The Business
Cuisine Concepts operates and manages some of the most popular eateries in Minneapolis -- including Tejas, Bar Abilene in Uptown Minneapolis, and Franklin Street Bakery. The company also provides professional foodservice management and consulting services -- e.g., new-product development; management of new and existing facilities; training and staffing; menu development.

The Buzz
Cuisine Concepts' restaurants consistently receive accolades from local, regional and national food critics, editors and top travel guides. Its growing list of consulting-services clients features such diverse and prestigious organizations as Brunswick Corporation, Marshall Field's, Minnesota Zoo, Science Museum of Minnesota, University of Minnesota, and Walker Art Center.

The Catalyst
Co-owner Wayne Kostroski, a community-spirited restaurateur and business leader since the late 1970s, first got involved in addressing hunger in the mid-1980s. In 1986, Minneapolis' Uptown Association deemed that a jazz festival would be a good summer complement to its long-running Uptown Art Fair, a juried event that attracts a wide field of talented artisans and hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. Kostroski thought that the new Uptown Jazz Festival -- replete with countless food and beverage vendors -- would present a highly visible opportunity to raise awareness of hunger, and partnered with the nearby Joyce Food Shelf to collect food and cash donations.

In 1988, Kostroski led the first Twin Cities Taste of the Nation, one of the first national Taste of the Nation events that brings together a city's top area chefs and guest out-of-town chefs. Each delectable dinner raises funds for Share Our Strength, a national not-for-profit organization dedicated to ending childhood hunger.

Then, in 1992, while serving as president of the Minnesota Restaurant Association [now Hospitality Minnesota], Kostroski was tapped by Twin Cities movers and shakers -- namely, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chairwoman and CEO of Carlson Companies, and Harvey Mackay, envelope magnate, best-selling author and motivational speaker -- to chair the restaurant committee for the Super Bowl XXVI Task Force. That led to Kostroski creating and producing the very first Taste of the NFL, held in Minneapolis. He's never looked back.

"I'm in the hospitality business," said Kostroski, who's since formed Hunger Related Events, an umbrella 501[c][3] not-for-profit for all TNFL events. "I know how food is grown, how it's served, and how it's distributed. There's obviously a need to do large-scale events like this, and I'm happy to be able to organize them."

The Strategy
When Kostroski proposed holding an annual fund-raising dinner that brings award-winning chefs and alumni players from each NFL city to the Super Bowl host city [starting with Minneapolis, in 1992] -- and to donate 100 percent of the funds raised to help fight hunger -- the reaction was a little, well, mixed. "Marilyn and Harvey were thrilled," he recalled. "They said, 'Okay. Go for it.'"

Kostroski's pitch to Jim Steeg, then-NFL senior vice president of special events, was met with reserved enthusiasm -- and a warning: "Well, all right," Steeg said. "Just don't mess it up."

The Partners
Kostroski proceeded to assemble a far-reaching network that included NFL team owners, players and alums; talented chefs from all 32 NFL cities; generous sponsors; hundreds of well-connected volunteers; and countless others. TNFL's targeted recipient, America's Second Harvest -- The Nation's Food Bank Network, also played a valuable role in promoting and supporting the event.

"That first year was remarkable," Kostroski recalled. "[Minnesota Vikings alums] Bob Lurtsema and Scott Studwell knew the players, I knew the chefs, and our Super Bowl XXVI Task Force members helped attract some major sponsors."

Indeed. Thanks to sponsors such as SuperValu, whose transportation package sponsorship covered the chefs' airfare in 1992, TNFL was able to donate all funds raised -- i.e., $90,000 from dinner tickets, merchandise sales, etc. -- to America's Second Harvest, and continues to every year.

The Process
Pondering that first TNFL success story 15 years ago, Kostroski shakes his head in amazement, then poses a rhetorical question: "Can you imagine being a five-star chef from some warmer climate -- say, Tampa, Dallas or L.A. -- on the receiving end of this invitation: 'We'll fly you into Minneapolis for four days during late January, and you pick up your own lodging and other expenses, then prepare one of your specialties at no charge for thousands of guests.'

"I mean, when you stop to think about it, it's really pretty bold and ridiculous. But they did it, and many continue to do this gypsy thing for every single Super Bowl -- along with our dedicated board members, caterers, concierges, etc. Throughout the year, some chefs even organize Taste of the NFL-related events in their own cities."

The Financials
To date, annual Super Bowl-related TNFL dinners have raised more than $6 million dollars for America's Second Harvest's 200 member food banks and food-rescue organizations in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. "Most of the funds are donated directly to our member food banks across the country," explains Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of America's Second Harvest. "The national office receives about $35,000 each year to fund our Community Kitchen program, but the remainder goes to our food banks."

Escarra said that every dollar donated helps its food banks "provide about 20 pounds of food to those at risk of hunger." A little quick math tallies TNFL's heretofore contributions yielding more than 120 million pounds of food. "Taste of the NFL has helped provide tens of millions of meals to hungry Americans," she noted. "So, it is a very significant contribution to the work of our food banks."

Local TNFL events -- ranging from strolling wine-tasting-and-grazing socials, to sit-down dinners -- have raised additional funds for America's Second Harvest, plus other deserving groups that serve the hungry and homeless.

For example, this year's Minnesota Vikings TNFL Celebrity Dinner -- which Kostroski organized, along with Mark Haugen, TNFL chef director, Tejas chef and Cuisine Concepts co-owner -- attracted 1,000 guests and raised more than $500,000 for Hunger Solutions Minnesota. "Fifteen years later, Minnesota is still the highest net fundraiser for TNFL," Kostroski beams -- a testament to the state's philanthropic tradition.

The Upshot
Subsequent TNFL events have followed every year in the Super Bowl's host city, as well as in a handful of cities that have NFL teams. While many chefs, NFL alums and volunteers stay aboard from year to year, other dynamics -- e.g., team owners, coaches and, of course, Super Bowl host city locations -- change.

"Fortunately, I've learned that nothing is a sure thing," said Kostroski. "To do this, you need to develop some layers -- within each team and in every NFL community. When you do that and simply ask for peoples' support, they'll usually give it to you."

Case in point: Charles Fazzino, the eye-popping 3-D artist. For the seventh consecutive year, he's created a commemorative limited-edition 3-D print and open-edition poster for Super Bowl XLI. At this year's TNFL, he'll be signing works and donating a percentage of in-person and online print and poster sales to TNFL.

"Our mission statement -- 'To address the needs of the hungry and homeless by raising awareness and money through special events and programs' -- intentionally emphasizes awareness before money. By doing Taste of the NFL events, we raise awareness that hunger is an ugly, invisible and hidden disease in this country -- especially, among children and seniors. It's a disease that leads to other ills, too, such as poor health and under-educated people. After all, if your stomach is growling, it's hard to focus on learning.

"On the positive side, if you think about it, some of people's best experiences happen around food; it's a catalyst for bringing people together. As long as we can keep doing that, we'll be able to keep moving toward ending hunger."

Escarra, for one, is very grateful that Kostroski keeps managing to bring thousands of folks together each year. "Wayne is a terrific person," she praised. "He's a smart and creative businessman, and I've really been impressed by his commitment to help the less fortunate.

"America's Second Harvest is very fortunate to have a supporter like Wayne Kostroski, as well as his staff and volunteers who work so tirelessly. Taste of the NFL is a very special event. Consider that the Super Bowl is the biggest, most-watched sporting event of the year. Taste of the NFL helps us to be a part of it -- thereby raising awareness of the prevalence of hunger in America, and raising funds to help us fight hunger."

The Takeaway
Next Saturday, Feb. 3, no fewer than 3,400 guests are expected at the Greater Fort Lauderdale Broward County Convention Center for Taste of the NFL XVI. On the eve of Super Bowl XLI, they'll sip great wines and feast on delectable appetizers, salads, soups, entrees and desserts prepared by 32 of America's top chefs. [To see the list of chefs and recipes for the mouth-watering specialties they're presenting, go to and click on "Chefs."] All the while, TNFL guests will be helping people served by this year's local recipient, Daily Bread Food Bank of South Florida, an affiliate of America's Second Harvest.

"Wayne's concept of Taste of the NFL is a great example of 'thinking outside the box' -- and he did that long before that catch phrase was common," added Escarra. "I think the salient point here is that there are many, many ways to help raise funds for charities, and it never hurts to be creative."

Kostroski positively glows at the prospect of bringing folks together to move towards eliminating hunger once and for all. "How can someone feel this good?" he radiates. "If I didn't get involved -- even just a little bit -- how else could I get to meet so many great people, help others and get such an incredible education? If you don't get involved, you lose."

So, how much longer will Kostroski be involved in TNFL? "My wife, Eda, has asked me that a few times," he responds with a wry smile. "At this point, I guess the answer is, one, when Taste of the NFL has local fund-raising events in all 32 NFL cities; or, two, till the Minnesota Vikings are in the Super Bowl -- whichever comes first."

Every year, Kostroski speaks at various special events [e.g., college commencements, trade association meetings] to share his vision of the possible. His message? "Giving is good business, no matter what you do," he replied. "And don't wait till you're richer or more successful to do it.

"Ask yourself: Do you want to be a spectator, or get in the game? Everyone who has a talent -- whether you're a lawyer, plumber, electrician, chef, etc. -- can help out and do something. Don't do nothing waiting for something to happen."

Want to be a part of this year's Taste of the NFL tradition? Shop the TNFL Store:! There, you can buy TNFL tickets, merchandise [e.g., apron, cap, collector's pin], sporting goods, Charles Fazzino's 3-D prints, and the TNFL Restaurant Guide -- replete with profiles of this year's TNFL chefs and their top picks [150-plus total] of local restaurants...great for travelers! Remember: Sales receipts directly benefit America's Second Harvest -- The Nation's Food Bank Network.

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