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Recipe For Success

Cunningham Restaurant Group celebrates 20 years of culinary accomplishment

Writer / Jon Shoulders
Photographer / Brian Brosmer

In an industry as challenging and unforgiving as the restaurant business, Indianapolis-based Cunningham Restaurant Group (CRG) is still thriving after two decades, with an ever-expanding selection of successful restaurant concepts including Mesh, Boulder Creek Dining Company, Vida and BRU Burger Bar in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville and Lexington.

Founder, CEO and company visionary, Mike Cunningham, says a thorough understanding of day-to-day restaurant logistics, as well as an innate sense for customer hospitality, are crucial to stay successful in such a difficult field with so many competitors. And he should know because his understanding began when he was in the third grade.

The youngest of nine children, Cunningham was washing dishes at the local Skyline Chili down the street from his Cincinnati home by age eight to help make his large family’s ends meet — an experience that later gave way to multiple restaurant cooking jobs through high school. By the time he had obtained an associate degree in hotel and restaurant management from Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, he had worked his way up to assistant manager with the Ground Round Grill & Bar burger chain.

Cunningham’s foray into entrepreneurship came at age 22 when Ed Sahm, one of his Ground Round colleagues, decided to open his own independent restaurant and pub – Sahm’s on 116th Street in Fishers – and needed a manager. A few years later, Cunningham was debuting his own concept – a frozen yogurt and café shop called the Big Chill – which would expand to five locations beginning in the mid-1980s.

“This is a business I’ve been in my whole life, so I understand when things are not being done right and know how to adjust and fix things,” Cunningham says. “A lot of people think it’s all fun and good times, but this industry is hard work, and there are many moving parts that can go wrong every single day. You have to surround yourself with people who care and want to strive for perfection day in and day out.”

By 1997 Cunningham had observed the rise of TCBY and several other affordable frozen yogurt chain competitors and decided to sell his Big Chill stores to return to the full-service restaurant game. He found a prime location in Brownsburg and opened Boulder Creek Dining Company, offering modern fare and a rustic, mountain-lodge setting, now in its 21st year and still thriving. CRG was off and running.

“The challenge then, and what the challenge will always be, is finding good people that want to take care of others and have that hospitality gene,” he says. “To make guests feel like they’re home when they’re in your restaurant, that’s what sets you apart.”

Avon-based, Italy-inspired Charbonos followed a few years after the opening of Boulder Creek, and CRG continued to gain momentum, steadily expanding and adding new establishments to its portfolio including six Stone Creek Dining Company locations in Indiana and Ohio and Moerlein Lager House in Cincinnati. Cunningham has continued to sharpen his command of all things culinary and currently oversees 21 restaurants in four cities, with two new Indy eateries scheduled to open this fall in the Ironworks Hotel on East 86th Street – Rize, a health-conscious breakfast and lunch spot that will offer catering, and Provision, an upscale lunch and dinner concept.

“It was a slow, methodical growth over 20 years, and it used to be one (restaurant) every two years, and then one every year and then multiple per year,” says Cunningham, adding that CRG currently employs approximately 1,600 people.

Adaptation has played a key role in Cunningham’s winning formula, and he says CRG has responded to the rise in customer demand for unique, locally sourced ingredients.

“People want to eat locally grown, healthy food, which is a greener approach for everyone even the restaurants because you’re not trucking your produce from California or your meat from Arkansas or wherever,” he says. “And it keeps those jobs in the state.”

Never one to ignore industry trends, Cunningham has gone further than just sourcing local produce from Hoosier growers. He recently purchased a 7,800 square-foot greenhouse on the south side of Indianapolis, where, this summer, CRG will begin harvesting hydroponically grown lettuces, herbs, peppers and tomatoes for its kitchens.   

“Certainly the local trend is big right now,” Cunningham says. “At our Vida concept, which is new in the last 14 months, we have a hydroponic wall in the kitchen. We’re pulling fresh lettuces and herbs right off our kitchen wall and serving it that day. You have to do things like that and evolve in this kind of business to keep things fresh and interesting for everybody.”

For additional information on Cunningham Restaurant Group, visit crgdining.com.

About Jon Shoulders

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