GARFIELD PARK – For Pastor Kevin Cunningham, 43, the vision to own and operate the West Side Subway franchise at Lake and Pulaski with his wife, Deirdre, 49, came during one of his Sunday morning church sermons. God took him on an off-topic discourse, Cunningham said, leading him to the Subway franchise in K-Town, minutes from where he grew up in West Garfield Park.
On that Sunday as he preached to his flock at Vision of Victory Evangelistic Ministry on the South Side, Cunningham told his congregation that churches should own businesses — and own them in bad areas to bring economic stability back to the neighborhoods.
“And then I found myself saying out loud that we were going to own a Subway, and I believe that is what God wanted us to do — to purchase the Subway,” Cunningham recalled as he worked in his restaurant at 304 N. Pulaski.
After that revelation, a confluence of life events followed.
“I got my teacher’s pension, and [Deirdre] got her retirement package from the Internal Revenue Service, and that is how we got the Subway,” he said. “It is exciting for all of us, and it is teaching our children how to be leaders as well.”
None of it has been easy, though, mostly because of the state of the neighborhood outside his business.
“My longtime goal has been to transform that area,” says Cunningham, a father of five, now residing with his family on the far South Side. “When we look out the windows of our Subway shop, we see the same street mentality, which is drugs, drugs, drugs. It can be Caucasian people walking the neighborhood searching for drugs, as well as African-American men and women, children, boys; it doesn’t matter.
“They are all searching for one thing, and it is drugs, and I don’t understand why for others, it seems like it is not important,” said Cunningham, who taught sixth- through eighth-grade math at CPS for 17 years.
Now the retired CPS teacher is being supported and celebrated in the Austin community for what he has done and is trying to do.
“In a day when it seems that most upwardly-mobile people are running from the West Side of Chicago, Kevin and Deirdre aren’t,” said Malcolm Crawford, co-owner of Sankofa Cultural Arts and Business Center in Austin. “I would like to applaud the Cunninghams for what they have been able to accomplish and the fact that he is a franchisee, because there is a lot required to be one for Subway, and the fact that Kevin lived in the community for many years and knows so much about the people here is a good feeling.”
According to Cunningham, laying the groundwork for this midlife career change, and new ministry, was the mentoring he received growing up in a close-knit family. The wrap-around support also included neighbors and teachers, who also made it their business to tell him that succeeding in school, and going on to college, was expected.
In addition to running the Subway, Cunningham is bent on working with other local leaders and business owners. He wants to forge a “forward-thinking plan,” one that includes West Side corridors offering more than just a few restaurants, T-shirt stores, barbershops and nail salons to local customers. Instead, he envisions a “revitalized business district.”
He envisions district with an eclectic mix of those existing establishments, plus universal brands like Staples, Costco and Best Buy — businesses that would offer a network of corporate support and community involvement. With vacant lots lining Pulaski Road from Lake Street to Jackson Boulevard, the network could encourage local leaders to tackle neighborhood blight issues.
“Yes, it is a dangerous area to run a business in,” Cunningham said. “but there is something protecting me and it is God and Jesus because I am a pastor, and I believe there has to be a different structure, a different mindset to attack this problem.”
Since November 2013, the Cunninghams have created some local buzz as the proprietors of a black-owned and operated Subway franchise — that is not the norm, he noted.
“It is rare to have people of color owning a Subway,” said Cunningham, who attended Daniel Webster Elementary School and Von Steuben High School.
After earning a marketing degree from a small college in northern Iowa, he later earned his master’s degree in teaching while in Chicago.
For Cunningham, pursing an education was the pivotal moment in his life.
“We had a strong, strong school, and it taught us many things, but it mainly taught us the only way to make it out of the neighborhood was to get an education,” he recalled. “I had good teachers, a strong family structure, and everything.
“So even if your neighborhood was terrible, you had a chance, a sense of hope. This is my vision, belief, convictions — that we don’t have to accept what is going on with the status quo.”
Working seven days a week, Cunningham and his wife — and a few church members he now employs — serve up subs to hard-working, hungry patrons looking for good conversation, as well as good eating.
So far, business has been good. But Cunningham said he wouldn’t complain if business were a little better. He’s still trying to transform the culture of the place but insists it’s “100 percent better than before.”
“I am currently working with others to develop that plan,” Cunningham said of the business district idea. “The number one thing for us is reaching out … developing relationships with the police in District 11 and the alderman of the surrounding areas to start creating fellowships to generate more ideas — and find people with like minds and experiences who can help us out.”
The Enterprize Zone is a regular business feature in Austin Weekly News