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Recipe for Success: Mike Cunningham and Co.
By striving to be familiar rather than chic, Cunningham Restaurant Group eats the competition’s lunch.
In the sprawling Union Trowel building on East Street, upholstered banquettes and a hand-wrought stage will take their places this June in the powerhouse Cunningham Restaurant Group’s latest dining destination, Union 50. The American fare spot will bring Cunningham’s restaurant total to 13, an impressive run that began in 1997 with the opening of Boulder Creek. The eateries usually lack big-name chefs and cutting-edge menus; as the new movement of local restaurateurs challenges patrons with risky fare like sweetbreads and bone marrow served among Edison bulbs and reclaimed wood, CRG instead churns out familiar dishes like pork tenderloin and filet medallions in comfortable, chain-like spaces skirted with padded booths and granite surfaces. But, boy, does it pay to play it safe.
Every single Cunningham offering has become a beloved neighborhood haunt. The Indianapolis Business Journal reported that amid the recession in 2009, CRG grossed $18 million. CRG wouldn’t disclose its 2013 earnings, but the company says it has doubled its revenue since then. Combine that balance sheet with a fiercely loyal staff—225 employees have been with the company for more than five years, an anomaly in the restaurant world—and you can see that CRG is on to something. Here are a few of the secret ingredients Cunningham used to build one of the biggest dining empires in town.
The youngest of nine children, Mike Cunningham had to develop an appreciation for teamwork at a young age. His dad was a mail-carrier and his mom stayed at home, so Cunningham and his siblings pitched in however they could, which usually meant earning an extra buck at the local Skyline Chili in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Whenever there was a need, one of my siblings would say, ‘My kid brother will come in,’” Cunningham says. “So I would go down and wash dishes when I was 8 years old.”
That early introduction to the “back of the house” led to multiple cooking jobs, where he began to develop a passion for professional kitchens. “Even when I cooked in restaurants in high school, I couldn’t wait to go to work for the social aspect,” he says. Nearing graduation and admittedly an average student, Cunningham decided to pursue a two-year associate’s degree at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, where he enrolled in the hotel and restaurant management program. The primary thing he learned there, though, was how to make a business plan. “It’s definitely an industry where you can pick up what you need to know just by working in the business,” he says.
So that’s exactly what Cunningham did: He sought hands-on experience, first as a cook at the old burgers-and-fries Ground Round chain, where he was promoted to kitchen manager at only 19 years old. After graduating from Cincinnati State, he was promoted into an assistant-management position, which was nearly unheard of for a recent graduate. But the decisive moment in his career came when he was transferred to a problematic Ground Round location in Indianapolis, where he met a kitchen manager named Ed Sahm.
After rubbing shoulders only a handful of times, Sahm offered Cunningham an opportunity he couldn’t refuse—a chance to help open Sahm’s, an independent neighborhood restaurant on 116th Street in Fishers. Cunningham came on board as the manager. “That was a big turning point because it took me away from a corporate management position and threw us both into an entrepreneurial spirit,” he says. “But it was sink or swim.”
While the 25-year-old Cunningham continued to work full time at Sahm’s, he debuted his first solo venture, The Big Chill, a small deli and frozen yogurt shop, on the corner of Allisonville Road and 116th Street. The concept took off, and while he was opening his fifth location, Cunningham parted from Sahm’s to devote more time to his family and his own endeavors.
Some of the Big Chill spots thrived for nearly 10 years, but the market for independent yogurt shops eventually dried up with the popularity of TCBY and other cheaper alternatives. Cunningham sold several locations, but he believes it was the ideal introduction to working on his own. “Looking back, you realize that if something wouldn’t have gone your way, you might’ve never had the opportunity to continue on, and [The Big Chill] was something that worked really well for us early on,” he says.
As luck would have it, one of his previous landlords at the Avon location, Larry Cranfill, soon approached him about developing a restaurant at a strip-mall development in Brownsburg. Months of reading books about restaurant design and studying successful concepts in the downtown market followed, as Cunningham concocted a plan for his first eatery. “We didn’t have these new, cool design-oriented restaurants yet, so I really studied that,” he says. “It really intrigued me early on that dining was more than food and four walls, it was an atmosphere and an environment that you had to create to really give an experience.” After nearly a year of preparation, Boulder Creek opened in 1997. The casual fine-dining atmosphere under the roof of a Colorado-lodge replica gained a loyal following of locals and officially marked the beginning of the Cunningham Restaurant Group.
While CRG’s earlier establishments feel somewhat corporate, with lengthy menus that offer only slight variations of one another, Cunningham has made a point to gradually open trendier ventures.
Brownsburg in 1997
The first CRG restaurant was inspired by Cunningham’s travels with his wife to visit her brother in Boulder, Colorado. The beloved Campfire Fettuccini originated here—a blend of Andouille sausage, barbecue shrimp, chicken, and mushrooms mingled with spinach, scallions, and red-chili cream sauce.
Avon in 1999
CRG’s second concept integrates a Tuscany-inspired setting with an eclectic mix of dishes ranging from the house-favorite Linguini Charbonos, tossed with a seafood trifecta of shrimp, scallops, and crab, to the braised pork shoulder accompanied by corn-jalapeño potatoes.
Locations in Greenwood, Plainfield, Zionsville, Noblesville, and two locations in Ohio, 2003–2010
These outposts include popular menu items fromboth Boulder Creek and Charbonos, such as chicken scaloppini doused in a velvety prosciutto sherry cream sauce and tender short ribs crowned with trumpet mushrooms.
Mesh on Mass
Downtown in 2010; Louisville location this fall
CRG bought the old Scholars Inn during the middle of the recession and remodeled it into a modern, upscale restaurant. Original head chef Layton Roberts left for a brief stint at Meridian Restaurant & Bar, but he returned in February. Like most of the other CRG menus, Mesh offers comfort food like pork tenderloin and roasted chicken. But Roberts, whose accolades bring added credibility to his post, challenges patrons with riskier options, like porchetta paired with a braised celery salad and drizzled with honey-truffle syrup.
BRU Burger Bar
Downtown in 2011; Lexington, Kentucky, in 2013
Perhaps CRG’s trendiest concept, Bru’s three-meat grind of sirloin, chuck, and brisket sparked a wave of gourmet-burger fanaticism in Indy. The popular bourbon burger arrives coated in a rich bourbon-peppercorn glaze, smothered in horseradish Havarti, and topped with bacon.
Moerlein Lager House
Cincinnati in 2013
Cunningham partnered with the famed Christian Moerlein Brewery to open this shrine to the Cincinnati brew lord. Inventive plates include a squash Wellington perched on lemon Brussels sprouts and balsamic tofu paired with spinach-basil risotto.
This June, Cunningham will introduce a slightly more adventurous dinner-only concept called Union 50. The new restaurant will be located just north of Mass Ave in the old Union Trowel building, which resembles an oversized hall with high ceilings and an open dining room that stretches from one end of the building to the other. “We liked that it’s kind of off the beaten path, and the entrance is going to be along the alleyway, which is cool,” Cunningham says. The doors will open at 4:30 p.m.; the menu will feature updated classics, from harissa-rubbed ribeye to chicken roasted in a wood-fired oven. After 10 p.m., the space will transform into a live-music venue, complete with a late-night menu. Small plates like a tower of bacon-wrapped dates and a bed of green beans adorned with blue cheese and bacon vinaigrette will serve as sustenance for patrons sipping craft cocktails and listening to local and regional acts.
While Cunningham integrates signature design elements into each of his restaurants to keep the spaces distinct, a visual formula has emerged.
» Brick walls and stone arches, like these from Charbonos, give a sense of “permanency,” communicating to the patron that CRG restaurants aren’t going anywhere.
» Outdoor elements, like these twig-encased light fixtures found at Boulder Creek, are infused into each establishment to give them a natural, unpretentious feel.
» A brown color palette creates a warm, intimate space that patrons feel comfortable returning to, says Cunningham. He believes that stark, white spaces don’t draw repeat customers.
» Pieces from local artists, like this cityscape found at BRU, are incorporated into several of his eateries to convey a sense of community and to support young artists.
» Hardwood is used for everything from the flooring to the booths to imbue familiarity and homeyness.
When Cunningham opened his first restaurant, he nearly ran himself into the ground taking on too many of the day-to-day tasks. The second time around, he learned to loosen the reins and hire more people. Here, a few of his 800-plus employees dish about what makes these places work.
Sous chef, Boulder Creek, CRG employee since 2003
“People go to our restaurants because they know what to expect. They know what salmon is, they know what pork tenderloin is, and they don’t have to worry about trying octopus or something that they’ve never had. In Brownsburg, Plainfield, and Avon, that trend hasn’t hit yet.”
Chief operating officer, CRG employee since 2009
“I’ve worked with a lot of different individuals in my long career, and what I can say about Mike that I can’t say about a lot of other restaurant leaders is that he eats a lot of his meals in his restaurants. It’s not unusual for him to go back in the kitchen after his meal and tell the staff what he thought of his experience.”
Executive chef, CRG employee since 2011
“We don’t just put up a restaurant and then watch the sales grow. We cater to our guests in every market that we’re in. It can be as simple as leaving a salad on the menu in Noblesville because we have a regular who comes in twice a week
to have it.”
Training specialist, CRG employee since 2006
“Mike will jump in and help with construction when we open new restaurants. I’m not scared of a broom when I see the owner out there with a hammer.”
The Business Model
CRG proves that successful restaurants don’t have to be complicated. But they do need rules. Here, a few of the principles that have worked for Cunningham.
Be a part of the neighborhood.
CRG targets residential areas more than commercial districts. “We have a vision of being an integral part of the places where people live,” the owner says.
Filets, baked potatoes, and iceberg lettuce were absent from the original Charbonos menu. “When we opened Charbonos, it lacked local appeal,” Cunningham says. “When we heard that feedback, we changed.”
Bad reviews don’t go unanswered. Every note the restaurants receive by e-mail or comment card gets a personalized response.
At Bru, you get a $10 burger in a space enhanced with wood-plank floors, faux-leather booths, and metal pendant lights—in other words, an environment that looks like it would serve a $25 meal.
Keep it fresh.
CRG updates decor regularly. “I’m constantly looking at magazines to get ideas of what’s trending,” Cunningham says. “We renovated Boulder Creek last year, and will do so this spring at Charbonos.”
If there’s one thing that CRG’s establishments have in common with the city’s more innovative dining concepts, it’s their commitment to nearby sources and vendors. “Buying local is something every true chef should be trying to do,” says executive chef Carl Chambers. “We support our local community as much as possible, and we see the return when our local community supports our restaurants.”
Fountain Square Brewery, Sun King, New Day Meadery, Bier Brewery, Triton Brewery, Flat12 Bierwerks
Gunthorp Farms (chicken and duck), Fischer Farms (pork), Viking Farms (lamb)
Gonnella Baking Co.
Burton Maple Farms (maple syrup)
Photos by Stacy Newgent
This article appeared in the May 2014 issue.