January’s Foodie of the Month: Mike Cunningham

Back when he was 14 and washing dishes at Skyline Chili in Cincinnati, Mike Cunningham had no idea he would one day head up a restaurant group with such polished hits as Mesh, Bru Burger Bar, and Union 50. But then, he wasn’t exactly dreaming about being a rock star, either. One of nine children in a family whose parents encouraged getting jobs early on, Cunningham helped open the first Sahm’s Restaurant, at 116th Street and Allisonville Road, in his early 20s. And by the age of  23, he owned his own frozen yogurt and sandwich shop, The Big Chill. “I always did what made the most sense,” he says, “and I made sure to take advantage of every opportunity.”

“I always did what made the most sense and I made sure to take advantage of every opportunity.”

Now the CEO of Cunningham Restaurant Group, overseeing nearly 1,200 employees in 16 casual-dining spots from Brownsburg to Lexington, Cunningham hopes to take his research and development efforts to the next level at his upcoming venture—Vida, a dinner-only, reservation-driven eatery in the old Amici’s location on New York Street. Vida will boast private dining and wine rooms, as well as weekly a la carte menus on which company chefs will try out new items for Cunningham’s growing portfolio.

It’s a logical step for an entrepreneur who realized early on that the most successful restaurants are about more than the food. “When I dine out, I often challenge my server to take on a special request,” he says. “If they won’t do it, I wonder if they realize they’re there to serve their clientele.”

Mike Cunningham’s Favorite Things

A graduate of IU’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, Terry Kirts hails from a town in Illinois so small it didn’t have a restaurant until he was in the 8th grade. Since 2000, he’s more than made up for the dearth of eateries in his childhood, logging hundreds of meals as the dining critic for WHERE Indianapolis, Indianapolis Woman, and NUVO before joining Indianapolis Monthly as a contributing editor in 2007. A senior lecturer in creative writing at IUPUI, Terry has published his poetry and creative nonfiction in a number of literary journals and anthologies, including Gastronomica, Alimentum, and Home Again: Essays and Memoirs from Indiana, and he’s the author of the poetry collection To the Refrigerator Gods, published by Seven Kitchens Press in 2011.