Tucked away in a culinary compound that's "sexy and inspirational," as founder John Csukor puts it, food and restaurants are always on the agenda. There's chant music, low lighting, appetite-stimulating color, a big, hidden kitchen, and a team with a collective 175 years of food-service background that's changing the way Richmond eats.
The business is Kor Food Innovation, a small company in Hanover County with international customers — DuPont, MeadWestvaco Corp., restaurant groups and food producers among them. Csukor, a chef-turned-chief executive, parlayed a lifelong cooking career into a full-service entity that designs menus, runs tasting focus groups, creates business strategies for clients as small as a sub shop and as large as global corporations. What they do sometimes covertly determines what consumers will taste, see and experience in restaurants here and elsewhere.
"The lion's share of our business is outside the state," Csukor says. "But we're often doing a lot of clandestine work, and what I mean by that is … Imagine your own restaurant concept and you've been successful, and you don't need the world to know that you need someone to fix your food costs or evaluate your business, or be a fresh set of marketing eyes on your strategy and concept and give you a more targeted plan. Those are all business needs, and people know that they need us, but they're not going to scream too loudly about it — they'd rather we keep this to ourselves."
He has a cabinet full of nondisclosure agreements, he says, "and in eight years, I've probably signed between 12 and 30 a year."
Some clients proclaim the relationship — Kor is named on DuPont's website, for example — but for local restaurateurs it's a behind-the-scenes fact that some prefer to stay that way.
"We're kind of a best-kept secret, like 'Kitchen Impossible' without the drama, the screaming. I'm not going to tell you that you look fat in those jeans, but one day I'm going to take you shopping," Csukor says. "It's not usually ego stroking that people are asking us to do." He often pitches his prospects: Even Tiger Woods has a golf coach.
Clients look for help keeping food costs in line, developing new dishes or cooking methods, designs for menus, concepts and spaces, food photography, public relations, and social media and other functions. Worldwide travel for the larger accounts allows the team to scout food trends, observe and analyze consumer behavior and develop ideas for their clients. That's why consumers are seeing more international foods at some of the city's newer and more established restaurants. Tazza Kitchen is an example, with wood-fired cooking and worldly flavors a strategic and desirable part of the concept.
Csukor considers the changes in Richmond restaurant culture as an evolution in flavor, portion and ingredient, and that more hot sauce, flavored oils and vinegars are used to add punch so that portion sizes can be trimmed. Satisfaction comes in palate power instead of bulk.
"What I see here is a heightening acceptability of foods that are not indigenous to Richmond," he says. "I'm excited to see restaurateurs allowing us to push them away from the staples of Richmond, because consumers are more open and educated now.
"Richmond aspires to be a much bigger town than it is, and food and drink culture has a lot to do with what a city is known for. I am hoping we can move away from having shrimp and grits, crab cakes and a sailor sandwich on every menu. Comfort staples are great, but one of the things we've been so involved with is driving a lot of healthy concepts," with sustainable foods and nutritional awareness the big touchstones.
Csukor's perspective on food is "a lot farther downrange from what I can touch today — how our agricultural situation is changing minute by minute, and aquaculture, and local ingredient cultivation," he says. "We have a shift in what's happening here. How are we going to sustain ourselves not just in the restaurant world but at home?" These are questions constantly revisited.
"Many smart people in the world want and need collaboration," Csukor says, and the business potential for "the gray space on the canvas not yet charted" prompted him to design it. Now, his headquarters is a think-and-taste lab that pulls in chefs, owners and producers who want to put something potent on the table. S