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Menlo Park natives return to launch 'foodie' startup

 

Kenzo Nakamura and Keisuke Teeple have a lot in common: They are both half Japanese, played hockey, and spent their formative years growing up in Menlo Park, where they attended Oak Knoll Elementary, then Hillview Middle School before they became good friends in high school at Menlo-Atherton High.

Now, they have another thing in common: building a startup called BlackPepper.

Though the two young men have a number of shared formative experiences, they developed different skills during and after college. Mr. Teeple went to the University of California, Davis, and UC Berkeley, where he studied math and economics, while Mr. Nakamura studied industrial design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

After college, Mr. Nakamura spent four years doing design work for Nissan, the last two of which he spent nursing the startup idea, and Mr. Teeple worked in corporate management in Washington, D.C.

Around January, they both found their way back to Menlo Park and decided to work on BlackPepper, a website for restaurants and chefs to post their own content about things like events or menu changes for "foodie" audiences, who can use the site to find restaurants or set up times to eat out with friends.

So far, a little more than 100 Bay Area restaurants have joined. There are 21 Palo Alto restaurants listed on the site and the rest are clustered in neighborhoods in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley.

Go to blackpepper.social for more information.

On foodies

Mr. Nakamura said his interest in food was born from an interest in chefs and cooking, going to restaurants, and even watching Netflix documentaries and television shows about food.

Through those, he said, he saw behind the scenes into a colorful, vivid world where the personalities of chefs and the delicacies their kitchens yielded forth were on display. That interest became greater when he moved to Japan.

"I think the Japanese have a culture that respects and celebrates food maybe a little more than America," he said. "I went to Japan, where there's a deep respect for food and restaurants (and was) really inspired by the color, chemistry, heat and creativity that goes into cooking."

When asked whether he thought there was a renewed interest in food and food culture in America, Mr. Nakamura said he sees the "foodie" movement as America's cultural effort to catch up with the abiding culture of food that has flourished in other parts of the world, but lapsed in the U.S. when manufactured food rose to dominance in the 1950s.

Around then, he said, America became "so focused on industry that cooking and food fell by the wayside ... it was, like, pineapple slices in a can and ham sandwiches."

"I think it's just America correcting itself," he said.

One theory he offered for this resurgence is that the foods of what he calls "minority cultures" in the U.S. are growing in popularity. "(There are) more Thai, Korean and Mexican restaurants," he said.

"I think we're a platform that really puts food on a pedestal," he said.

To him, that means getting people to see food as an art form rather than as fuel.

On Silicon Valley

Since returning to their hometown to work on the startup full-time, both said they have a better appreciation for what it means to be from Silicon Valley.

"Silicon Valley is to America as America is to the rest of the world," said Mr. Nakamura, "I think definitely being in this area, you're exposed to the world of making apps and building companies. A lot of our parents (have) gone through that."

Mr. Teeple said that the two locals do have some competitive advantage for having grown up nearby. "It is a business of connections," he said, adding that their efforts so far have gotten some help from their dads, their friends, and their friends' dads with connections to the tech and food industries.

For Mr. Nakamura, growing up in the area also shaped his identity and understanding of ethnicity. Growing up in Menlo Park, he said, "I didn't feel like an outsider at all ... even though my full name is Japanese."

However, while working in Japan, he said, he would tell people his name, and a common reply he received was an incredulous, "With that face?" because he is half white. He said it made him feel like an outsider, and that he is now thankful he grew up in a "progressive" place where he "felt like any other kid."

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