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Q & A With 'Taste of the NFL' Founder Wayne Kostroski

Posted Jan 26, 2018

In just over a week, Minneapolis will host “Taste of the NFL” on the eve of Super Bowl LII, which will kick off at U.S. Bank Stadium on Feb. 4.

It’s likely that fans are familiar with the high-profile event that has been nicknamed “Party with a Purpose” because of its mission to support hunger relief across the country.

In addition to names recognized by Vikings fans, including former linebacker Ben Leber and local celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, Taste of the NFL Founder Wayne Kostroski might be most excited to bring the nationally known event home to Minnesota for the first time since 1992, when the very first event was put on prior to Super Bowl XXVI.

Kostroski’s career journey has been an interesting one, starting with a rock-and-roll band called Circus that he and his friends formed. The band originated in his hometown of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and as its following grew, so did the group’s touring radius.

Kostroski toured with the band to multiple states, including regular appearances at The Bronco Bar, connected to Chanhassen Dinner Theater in Chanhassen, Minnesota. When the band began to wind down in the late 1970s, Kostroski was approached and asked to run The Bronco Bar’s entertainment.

After a move to the Twin Cities and a successful start to his new gig, Kostroski began “kind of nosing around the food service operations” at Chanhassen Dinner Theater. Before he knew it, he had learned enough to take charge of the St. James Hotel in Red Wing, Minnesota.

“I didn’t plan to be in the hospitality industry, but it was kind of an easy transition,” Kostroski said. “I think in the course of just kind of keeping my eyes and ears open, I learned a lot through experience and am very, very blessed to have had the success that I’ve had in that industry.”

Kostroski played an instrumental role at several Twin Cities premier dining establishments, including Figlio’s, Tejas and Goodfellow’s. And yet, he’ll tell you that Taste of the NFL is the project he’s most proud of.

The event has grown each year since Kostroski orchestrated the one in 1992, and he said returning Taste of the NFL to where it all began is truly bringing everything full circle.

“I’ve been blessed personally to know a lot of people in the Vikings organization – players and former players – and that’s why the cherry on top of this is that Taste of the NFL is coming home,” Kostroski said.

“The energy here is amazing … It’s cold, but it’s very warm because of the people,” Kostroski added. “This is going to top that by a few levels. It’s a good time to be a proud Minnesotan, because this is going to be pretty cool. And for our event, this is going to be a record year for us.”

We recently caught up with Kostroski to ask him about the Twin Cities food scene, his passion for hunger relief and bringing Taste of the NFL back home to Minnesota for the first time since 1992. Following are some excerpts from that conversation:

Q: As someone who has now spent years in Minnesota and in the entertainment industry, what can you say about the Twin Cities food scene?

A: Over the different decades, it’s been really exciting to see how the culinary scene and restaurant scene has changed in the Twin Cities. It obviously has changed across the country, as well – kind of the era in the 80s when ‘super star’ chefs tried to build their careers and the Food Network started coming around.  

But the Twin Cities, I think back when I first started working in it, it was trying to make some changes and trying to be a pioneer in different areas of food and such, but I don’t think it was getting as much success as maybe it could have. But now in the last 10 to 15 years, I am so impressed with the culinary and restaurant scene here.

I’m much more impressed today with all these young chefs who have worked in a number of kitchens where the chefs of the last 10-15 years were very good mentors, very interested in bringing along young talent. And now I think the Twin Cities restaurant scene has a lot more diversity in offerings of food. I think a lot of people travel somewhere else, and they say, ‘Geez, I went to New York, I went to Miami, I went to L.A., and I saw this kind of restaurant.’ I think a lot of that has been happening here, and to the benefit of the people who live in the Twin Cities, there’s a lot better variety and quality level, for the most part, in the restaurants here. It’s really amped up, and I think that’s due to the dedication and the drive of these young and up-and-coming chefs that are in the community and trying to make a mark. Gavin Kaysen (Spoon and Stable), a good friend of mine, could be anywhere in the country given his record … [but] he went on to do what we he did, and he came back home. I think that’s a huge sign that says there’s a lot of confidence in the food scene here.

Q: All proceeds from Taste of the NFL benefit hunger relief, which is something I know you’re very passionate about. Where did that interest start for you?

A: I’m really blessed to have had my eyes opened to the issue of hunger. Personally, I’ve never been hungry in my life, and that’s thanks to – probably the greatest influence in my life – my late mother. … Particularly when you’re in your teens, you don’t even know you’re being that strongly impacted. Just by her example of cooking meals, bringing bread to neighbors, I just thought that was Mom being Mom. That kind of fed the foundation to keep my eyes and ears open. In the mid-80s, I came across a gentleman [who also was] a major influence on me – Dick Gable was the director of the St. Paul food bank, which, if you fast forward … ended up being Second Harvest Heartland.

I was interested and went over there [to the food bank], and I guess it really changed my philanthropic life to see the dedication and commitment those folks had and is still exemplified today by Second Harvest and the many, many food banks that I’ve seen since then, to be able to do so much with so little.

As you become more familiar with the tremendous work of the [hunger relief programs], it has changed so much. One, in the quality of food that is being requested is important, and we’ve all come to realize that it’s not just food for substance – it’s important to have the right food: fruits and vegetables and better foods – but also what they do. And what’s important to me in the work with Taste of the NFL is that we’re contributing also to the education process and the more full support of a human being.

That expansion into all those areas is so impressive and mind-boggling, so I guess the intersection of that introduction of realizing how hard and how many people are working on other people’s behalf, and then my involvement with the hospitality – or more importantly, the food business – was just something that fortunately clicked big-time for me.

I don’t know that everybody is fortunate enough to find that intersection, whether it’s this cause or any other cause, and that’s kind of what we’re trying to do, too – look around and find a way that you can help someone out on your own time and in your own way.

Q: What would you have said in 1992 if you could look into the future and see how big and how successful this event would become?

A: My vision at that time was to put on one great event that showed off the generosity and the hospitality and the excitement that people had for the Super Bowl coming [to Minneapolis] in 1992. I thought we’d put on one great event, and that’d be it. We’d check it off, everybody would remember that great event, and there you go.

Our goal as an organization was to do something that would be special for the visitors, show off our hospitality and truly be that ‘Minnesota nice.’ Put on events perhaps that had never been done before.

My idea came to me because we had had our restaurants, Goodfellow’s and Tejas, [participate in] other hunger events with chefs, [and we asked], ‘What if we took a chef from each of these NFL cities – at the time there were 28 – and pair them up with a player and throw a party on Saturday night and make it the best party the night before the Super Bowl?’

Scott Studwell and Bob Lurtsema were the only two Vikings that I knew – I called the chefs, Studwell and Lurtsema called the players, and after the event was over … everybody said, ‘This was really moving; this was wonderful. We’re in if you do this again.’ So really, it grew out of that first year and the understanding that there were many people out there, in the entertainment industry and the sports world, that are willing to step up and help if they’re just asked. And the cause is pure, because all the money goes to food banks.

Q: I know you’ve considered Minnesota ‘home’ for a while now. What do you personally expect from the Twin Cities community in helping support the ‘Party with a Purpose’?

A: In 1992, the impact of the way Minnesota handled the Super Bowl, this is kind of my term, but I think it’s true – it’s kind of legendary. People always refer back to the way they were treated when they came to Minnesota, and I think part of the factor is, Los Angeles, Phoenix, New Orleans, Atlanta, they all put on great Super Bowls, but they kind of know it’s coming back soon enough. The fact that we had the one show in ’92 and really, people talk about it at these Super Bowl meetings – they still refer to it.

As far as this event is concerned, everybody from the Commissioner on down talks about this being the premier charitable event at the Super Bowl. It’s the only one where all the proceeds go to a cause; it’s not part of an afterthought. It’s the whole reason – that’s why it’s called ‘Party with a Purpose.’ So coming to Minnesota, I knew it was going to be exciting. That’s why we called it ‘Taste of the NFL Comes Home.’

- Taste of the NFL will kick off the charitable weekend of Super Bowl with the SUPERVALU Founders Breakfast which brings together chefs, players and supporters from the inaugural 1992 Taste of the NFL event for Super Bowl XXVI the morning of the nonprofit’s 27th annual Party with a Purpose®

- Taking place on Saturday, Feb. 3 at the Saint Paul RiverCentre Ballroom

- Tickets to the Founders Breakfast are $75 – the identical price for the first-ever Taste of the NFL event in 1992.

- Tickets can be purchased here: www.bidpal.net/foundersbreakfast