January’s Foodie of the Month: Mike Cunningham

Mike Cunningham, head of Cunningham Restaurant Group, reimagines the dining experience, one restaurant at a time.

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