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Stone Creek owner adding to his dining empire

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Mike Cunningham was 8 years old when he landed his first restaurant job, as a dishwasher at a Skyline Chili in his hometown of Cincinnati.

Cunningham had found his calling: Now 47, he has run dining spots ranging from a bar and grill to yogurt stands and is growing a popular chain of upscale restaurants—primarily under the Stone Creek Dining Co. name—in Indiana and Ohio.

Avon-based Cunningham Restaurant Group has more than 450 employees and is on track to ring up $22 million in sales for 2010, up from $18 million in 2009. The company’s 10th restaurant—a spot called Mesh to replace the former Scholar’s Inn on Massachusetts Avenue downtown—is scheduled to open in August.

“I started cooking in high school,” said Cunningham, who is married with three daughters. “One thing leads to another, and you end up making a livelihood out of it.”

Cunningham Mike Cunningham, at his Zionsville eatery, says he serves “food that’s interesting but familiar." (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

Most of the company’s restaurants operate as Stone Creek, including four locations in central Indiana and two in the Cincinnati suburbs. The group also owns Boulder Creek Dining Co. in Brownsburg, Charbonos in Avon, and Café 251 in downtown’s Capital Center.

The restaurants most directly compete with Bravo, Bonefish Grill and P.F. Chang’s, Cunningham said. The restaurants don’t follow the latest trends, but instead focus on serving “food that’s interesting but familiar.”

The newest restaurant in the Cunningham Restaurant Group lineup—a Stone Creek in West Chester, Ohio—replaced a restaurant called Mesh. Cunningham bought the equipment, the 8,800-square-foot lease and the name—since he liked it for his new space on Mass Ave.

The price was right, Cunningham said, and it gave him a chance to capitalize on the recession to grow his business. He agreed to lease the former Scholar’s Inn space for the same reason.

For the new Mesh, Cunningham hired Executive Chef Layton Roberts of 14 West to develop a menu that will be “95 percent different” from the chain’s other restaurants. Yet the offerings will be more affordable than Scholar’s Inn, with sandwiches for about $8 and entrees ranging from $13 to $20. A renovation will reveal brick walls that had been covered, along with hardwood floors.

Cunningham doesn’t expect to open any more restaurants in the Indianapolis area, but he sees more opportunities in Cincinnati, where he is partnering with local favorite Christian Moerlein Brewing Co. on a giant restaurant along the riverfront. He also is scouting potential sites in Louisville.

“We just want to do what makes sense and grow carefully,” said Cunningham, who has two partners, businessmen John Roesch and Larry Hoeg, who together own 25 percent of the company.

He finances most of his restaurant deals with Bloomington-based Monroe Bank or Frankfort-based The Farmers Bank.

Cunningham moved to Indiana in 1984 after his employer at the time, the Ground Round chain, sent him to run a local restaurant. He started with Ground Round as he earned an associate’s degree in restaurant and hotel management from Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.

While at Ground Round, he met Ed Sahm. In the mid-1980s, he joined with Sahm to launch the first Sahm’s restaurant at 116th Street and Allisonville Road.

Sahm also partnered with Cunningham on a five-location yogurt chain called The Big Chill—which ran its course as the yogurt craze faded. Sahm also invested with Cunningham in a restaurant called Mr. Robert’s in Avon, Café 251 and Boulder Creek. Sahm sold back his interest in each of the restaurants over the years.

“He’s a good operator; he crunches numbers well, runs tight controls,” said Sahm, who runs 10 restaurants of his own. “All the while, he’s got a good-looking place and a good product. And he works hard.”

Cunningham also has a good eye for talent, having recruited managers who are well-known as pros in the industry, said Bennet Ackerman, who runs Melting Pot restaurants in Castleton and Greenwood.

One challenge of opening more locations in Ohio will be keeping in touch with every store every day, an advantage with the Indianapolis-area restaurants, Ackerman said.

“For a non-franchise concept, he’s put together an operations playbook that keeps everything in check,” Ackerman said.

Developers impressed with Cunningham’s results are coming after him to offer new opportunities, said Larry Cranfill, chairman of Brownsburg-based Cranfill Development Corp., which owns the Boulder Creek space.

“He watches his numbers very carefully. His food is consistently good. And he’s always looking for new recipes so that you always have something new you haven’t tried,” Cranfill said. “He’s one of the most successful tenants I’ve ever had. He’s not done yet.”•

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  • Excited
    Very excited to see the opening of the new Bru Burger Bar in Lexington,KY. the place looks beautiful.
  • Great Food!
    I was in Brownsburg a few weeks ago and decided to give Boulder Creek a try around lunch time...the food was great! Had no clue that Boulder Creek was connected to several other restaurants around Indy until speaking with the manager that day. Mike has a good thing going and I'd recommend his restaurants to anybody.

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