People don’t just like Wayne Kostroski. They admire him.
Midway through a successful career as an owner of popular restaurants like Tejas, Goodfellow’s, and Figlio’s, Kostroski caught the philanthropy bug. During the 1992 Super Bowl in Minneapolis, he organized a fundraiser, inviting some of the best chefs in the country to throw a wine-and-dine benefit, with the money going toward alleviating hunger.
“Taste of the NFL” was born. On the eve of this year’s Super Bowl in Houston, Kostroski hosted his 26th star-laden gala, featuring Olympic heroes Carl Lewis and Simone Biles, the reigning Miss America, and a roster of NFL players.
These days, Kostroski’s lauded Twin Cities restaurants are closed, but his charity keeps him rubbing elbows with celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay, Andrew Zimmern, and wine heiress Gina Gallo.
He’s also owner of Franklin Street Bakery, which operates 24 hours a day, warming buns and loaves that’ll be loaded onto Sysco and US Foods trucks and re-sold in 17 states.
Business is humming along, though not every baker feels like whistling while she works. Last spring, workers reached out to the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union. Some believe they’re underpaid and say they get just six paid days off all year.
Not long after, Rosa Baires, who’d signed a petition in favor of unionizing, took time away from work to attend an ex-husband’s funeral. When she reported back, Baires was told the bakery no longer needed her. Maria Mendiola claims she was fired for “poor job attendance,” though she said employees who hadn’t signed a unionizing petition “are not receiving similar discipline.”
These were among about 50 alleged violations filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Some workers said they’d been interrogated about their union support and felt threatened.
Through the NLRB, the two sides reached an agreement. Baires and Mendiola will receive about $7,400 and $12,600 in back pay, respectively, and can re-apply for their jobs.
The bakery also agreed to a raft of concessions: Management will not “make it appear we are watching out for your union activities” or make workers speak English to convince employees to stop talking about unions. Managers further pledged not to call anyone a “rabble rouser” or a “liar” for organizing.
The irony of Kostroski’s nonprofit venture and his for-profit behavior is not lost on workers. On February 4, the same day Kostroski threw his Taste of the NFL event in Houston, employees and activists held a “Taste of Justice” rally for their cause.
Kostroski is “flabbergasted” that anyone would conflate his good work with the Taste of the NFL and his bakery business.
He claims the NLRB settlement is full of “inaccuracies,” though he won’t say what they are. But a review of tax documents reveals Kostroski’s nonprofit and his private interests are not all that separate.
Year after year, Taste of the NFL has devoted a significant chunk of its expenses to Cuisine Concepts, Kostroski’s privately co-owned company, which “manages operations for Taste of the NFL.” Nonprofit experts say funneling charity money to its leader’s private business raises a red flag. “Best practices is to avoid those kinds of circumstances,” says Jon Pratt, director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.
“Ideally,” says Kate Barr, director of the Nonprofits Assistance Fund, “there would be an absolute wall” between a charity CEO and the awarding of money to his own company. That decision should be "arm's length," at least, and should only be made by fully informed board members.
Frank Supovitz has been a Taste of the NFL board member since 2005, but he hasn’t heard any discussion of spending money with Kostroski’s company.
“I’m not sure that that’s true,” he says. “If it is, I’m not aware of it.”
Supovitz volunteers his time with Taste of the NFL, and says Kostroski “volunteers a heck of a lot of his time.”
According to Kostroski, Taste of the NFL operates under “an agreement” made by the board 15 years ago to “cover the expenses that we volunteer, myself, my business partners, a number of other people, to have Taste of the NFL be able to raise money. And it’s all given away.”
Not quite all of it. From 2010 through 2014, the last year tax returns are publicly available, Taste of the NFL spent $954,000 with Cuisine Concepts, Kostroski’s company. More than $1 million went toward marketing and “event planning.” Another $400,000 went toward “entertainment,” and around $1.1 million was spent on “travel.”
The charity's efforts, including at its lavish events, have also raised over $14 million over those years, and it's doled a lot out. The biggest recipient identified on its 2014 tax documents, St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix, received $155,000 — about $5,000 less than was awarded to Cuisine Concepts.
That year, Taste of the NFL gave out a total of $893,000 in grants, and spent another $840,000 on “management,” marketing, event planning, “office expenses,” advertising, and “travel” ($266,000 in 12 months).
That ratio risks a bad grade from the sticklers at Charity Watch, who start handing out C-minuses when charities devote 45 percent or more of their outlay to “overhead.”
Kostroski won’t explain those costs, preferring to lambast a reporter for writing about them in the first place.
He contends he hasn’t “taken a dime personally” from Taste of the NFL, which has “fed millions of people over the last 27 years.”
At one point, Kostroski warned, “be careful what you print,” adding, “you better check all your facts.”
Here’s one we can both agree on: Next year, a big, beautiful party will be held somewhere near U.S. Bank Stadium. A good time will be had by all the famous people invited and the rich ones who can donate their way in. A lot of money will be spent. Even more will be raised. A good chunk will go to food shelves.
And the workers at Franklin Street Bakery will only hope they never need such charity.
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