By John Rice
Starship Restaurant & Catering marked 40 years at 7618 Madison St., with a gala celebration on Aug. 26. More than 50 people joined in the festivities, which included a buffet of appetizers, a cake decorated with the Starship Enterprise (from Star Trek) and, of course, sandwiches. Co-owner Paul McKenna delivered a brief speech, likening the restaurant's founding to a "barn-raising." Patrons then filed outside to release 40 biodegradable balloons. At the release point, McKenna led the crowd in the famous phrase, "May you live long and prosper."
The fact that Starship is still prospering after 40 years, making it Madison Street's longest-running restaurant, defies all odds. Sixty percent of restaurants close their doors during their first year of operation. Eighty percent of them shut down by their fifth year. How did McKenna and his business partner, Henry Laskowski, keep the doors open for four decades?
They certainly didn't open during a period of prosperity. On Nov. 4, 1977, the country was mired in a recession and interest rates were sky high. Both partners were unfamiliar with the restaurant business and an eatery had just failed at that location.
Before that, 7618 Madison had been home to a barber shop, but the popularity of long hair caused the barber to convert it to Custard's Best Stand. After this closed down, the partners purchased the building for a bargain price.
At that time, sub sandwiches were just becoming popular. Most of the chains used nautical themes. McKenna considered "20,000 Leagues under Forest Park" but the partners decided to go with spaceships instead of submarines. They came up with a catchy name, Starship Enterprises Inc.
The name was too catchy for Paramount Pictures, which released Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. The studio was trademarking all Trek-related terms and Starship Enterprises appeared to be an infringement. Fortunately, a loyal patron was also a lawyer and his firm represented the restaurant for free. They negotiated a compromise with Paramount to drop Enterprise and call it Starship Inc.
"We got lots of free publicity. We were on radio talk shows," McKenna recalled. "It was the most fun lawsuit in history, a David and Goliath story."
While David was fighting the legal battle, the partners were concentrating on the food. Though they specialized in sandwiches, "We added soups as a survival mechanism," McKenna recalled. Soup was a good cold-weather alternative, with the restaurant selling 30 gallons a day in the winter. Today, they offer 150 different kinds of soup. "We serve 5-6 soups daily," McKenna said, noting that their soup hotline (708-366-SOUP) is "kind of fun." They take entrees and turn them into soups.
"I personally love Cajun food," McKenna confessed, "so we make jambalaya." They also offer German and Mexican varieties and specialties like Resurrection Chicken, which allegedly can knock out the worst cold.
"Resurrection Soup should have an Rx on the label," McKenna quipped. "There's a zaniness to our soups."
There's also a zaniness to their sandwiches, considering that "Crazy Club" is their top seller. They offer a wide variety of subs and feature a "cheap but good" sandwich daily. To have enough space to prepare these sandwiches, Starship has gradually expanded over the years.
"We received a grant and a low-interest loan from the West Suburban Preservation Agency for a major re-model in 1980," McKenna said. "It was a good government program. We couldn't have afforded it on our own." They first built a kitchen inside the garage and then expanded west, when they bought the building next door. These rooms contain walk-in freezers and refrigerators and plenty of room for food prep.
"We have 15 employees," McKenna said, "20 including drivers. Our guys don't seem to quit. We show respect for our employees. Starship has a family feel, though we're not related."
The partners may not be related but they are locked in a "marriage" of sorts. "Marriages don't even last 40 years," Laskowski observed. "It's amazing we still like each other."
It was "like at first sight," when they met in high school, working as stock boys at a grocery store called Elliot's Dairy. "We worked together beautifully," Laskowski recalled. "We were in synch with each other. We became best friends." Though they knew nothing about the restaurant business, they came up with the perfect division of labor.
"We complement each other," Laskowski continued. "Paul is hands-on with the cooking and I do the buying and take care of the finances. We trust each other 100 percent." They also learned to "honor their personal time" so they don't burn out. Though their prep cooks can come in as early as 2 a.m. to prepare a special order, the partners typically start at 8 a.m. and put in about 40 hours a week.
Away from the restaurant, they do not share the same interests. Music is McKenna's outlet, while golf is Laskowski's passion.
"I play guitar and sing," McKenna said. "I've played up and down Madison Street."
As for the restaurant, "It's not about the money," McKenna said. "It's about the food." This includes the food on their catering menu. "We sell catering items we don't carry in the store," McKenna explained. "About 50 percent of our business is catering. We cater to faraway places, Joliet, Hammond, even Peoria."
"We also do a lot of work with local churches and schools," Laskowski said. "We provide all the sandwiches for the Day Camp at The Park." Starship is indeed part of the fabric of the village.
"Forest Park is very special," McKenna said. "It's become a destination suburb. When Madison Street was revitalized, we benefitted from it. This town has held its own. As [District 209 school board member] Claudia Medina said, we have to make a stand for our community."
McKenna's community involvement includes teaching a hospitality class at Triton College, where he imparts his wisdom to would-be restaurateurs. His number-one priority is that they be, "Consistent with their hours." Owners who close early, or don't maintain a reliable schedule, will lose customers.
Starship has kept their customer base by preserving quality and adding a fun twist with their Star Trek theme. The restrooms are labeled Transporter Rooms. The place is decorated with kitschy Star Trek memorabilia, and they host unique events. During the Cubs championship run, they cooked a 40-pound goat and invited customers to, "Eat the Curse." It's no wonder they've built such a loyal base during their 40-year run.
"We get stories every day," McKenna said. "I just got off the plane and the first place I had to go was Starship."