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Volume 20 No. 42
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The Lefton Report: ‘Taste of the NFL’ keeps cookin’ as it heads back to its roots

Next week, the “Taste of the NFL” charity event returns to Minnesota, where it began in 1992. Staged the night before the Super Bowl, “Taste” has contributed more than $25 million to food banks in NFL markets, which founder Wayne Kostroski equates to 200 million meals.

Things have changed over 25 years. In its inaugural version, the “Party with a Purpose” had 26 chefs cooking for around 1,000 guests. Tickets then cost $75 and the event raised around $100,000. For this year’s strolling food and wine fest at the Saint Paul RiverCentre, 40 chefs will cook for 2,200 people who have paid upward of $700 per ticket. Organizers are hoping to surpass the record $1 million from the 20th anniversary “Taste” at Super Bowl XLV in 2011.

“It does feel like a homecoming,” said Kostroski, a Minneapolis restaurateur who served on the Super Bowl XXVI Host Committee and had experience using chefs to promote hunger relief for programs like “Share Our Strength.” “That idea of using chefs to fight hunger was powerful and I knew it could work here. Really, my toughest job was convincing them all to come to Minnesota in January and cook. Really, once the chefs and players knew the cause, they were all in.” 

Jim Steeg, former NFL senior vice president of special events, said that as the first Super Bowl charity event sanctioned by the league, “Taste” served a purpose beyond fighting hunger. “It was a critical moment for the NFL,” Steeg said. “The way it succeeded convinced us to do many more. Four years later we had more than 108 sanctioned [charity] events in Phoenix, which was probably too many, but we found the formula for a legacy and a leave-behind, which was an important change.”

Now it can be told: The original “Taste” almost never happened. The way Philadelphia restaurateur Jack McDavid remembers it, when he and fellow chef Allen Susser showed up at 5 a.m. in the atrium of a Norwest Bank carrying their sets of chef knives, security didn’t exactly shower them with Midwestern hospitality. Apparently, the authorities thought they were there to raise funds in an altogether different way.

We all thought this would be a great way to give back, but none of us knew it would become a legacy event.
Dave Mona
Super Bowl XXVI Host Committee member, on the beginnings of the ‘Taste of the NFL’

“They figured we were there to rob the bank,” McDavid said with a laugh. “We told them we were there to make food. For a while, we thought we were going to jail.”

The misunderstanding was corrected and the two chefs have volunteered at every “Taste of the NFL” since.

“You look across the world of chefs and almost all of us came up by our bootstraps,” McDavid said. “So we all want to share — especially when it comes to food and hunger.”

Around a dozen NFL teams, including the Vikings, Browns, Cowboys, Texans and Jets, have added local versions of “Taste” over the years, which raise between $150,000 and $400,000 for local food banks.

“Taste” is celebrating its return home with another event: a “Founders Breakfast” that will reunite many of the original forces behind the charity. It comes with the original $75 price tag. Some of those founders remembered the impetus for the first event.

“The Super Bowl had gotten really big by then and both the NFL, and the host committee as an extension, were aware of the reputation it had for taking and taking, and not giving back,” said Dave Mona, a retired Minneapolis PR exec who served on the Super Bowl XXVI Host Committee. “We all thought this would be a great way to give back, but none of us knew it would become a legacy event.”

Parties and events come and go at Super Bowls, but “Taste” is a constant. How to account for its longevity? “So many of the original people are still involved and that keeps it going,” Steeg said. “They’ve locked up a premium time [Saturday night] and they attract everyone who loves football and food, which, in a Super Bowl city, is a lot of people.”

McDavid offers Kostroski accolades: “He’s like an Energizer Bunny when it comes to this,” he said.

Counters Kostroski: “It’s not me, it’s because of all of these chefs and [NFL] players who have volunteered. Lots of chefs have been interested in hunger causes for a long time. I just happened to know some of them.”

REMOVING JERSEY BARRIERS: NBA business partners Fanatics and American Express are teaming to offer “Jersey Insurance” to anyone purchasing an NBA jersey with an AmEx card at the NBA Store on Fifth Avenue in New York City, or on any of the Fanatics-administered sites, which include NBAstore.com.

The promotion offers fans a year of “insurance” that the player whose jersey they purchase will not move to another team. If he does, the jersey can be exchanged for another at no charge for a year from the purchase date. The promotion expands a 90-day program that Fanatics began offering last year for jerseys from other pro leagues. The offer comes with the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline impending.

Chris Orton, Fanatics’ direct to consumer co-president, said research revealed that fears of a player being traded or leaving via free agency was a leading concern for those considering a jersey purchase. “We wanted to remove a consumer pain point,” he said.

The program will be communicated via digital and social media, along with point-of-sale and possibly traditional media.

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.