The Urban Pioneer Group space at 7503 Madison St. | Courtesy

A new business opened on Madison Street last April that offers a remarkable range of different services — what co-owner Sheila Kunkel called a “hodgepodge.” At first glance, it’s hard to figure out what ties their business model together.

What does creating furniture made with repurposed building materials have to do with teaching people how to make Italian salumi or hosting a corporate team-building event?

Sheila and her husband Tom, the owners of Urban Pioneer Group (UPG) located at 7503 Madison St. in Forest Park, explained that the unifying theme is repurposing and reclaiming — old building materials, old-world recipes and old-fashioned social gatherings.

Urban Pioneer Group Builders, the first part of their business, turns reclaimed building materials into furniture — “custom tables, unique flooring, accent walls, rustic shelving, industrial carts … you name it” (according to their website).

For instance, UPG is currently working with Trinity Lutheran Church in the Galewood neighborhood of Chicago, which is getting rid of its pipe organ. Tom made overhead lighting fixtures with LED lights for their business space out of some of the larger wooden organ pipes, and they paneled the east wall of their business space with lumber retrieved from an old boxcar. 

“We revamped our business space,” Sheila explained, “by making it look rustic and at the same new.”

When Tom can’t use reclaimed materials he gets for furniture or redesigning the interior of a home or business, he brokers it to a buyer who can use it.

UPG also has a Family Tree program: When a tree in your yard needs to be taken down, Tom will saw it up into lumber, kiln-dry the wood, and make furniture with it for your home, so that the tree will still remain with the family.

Leigh Ann Hughes, who lives in Oak Park, said, “As part of the rehab of my 1920s brick colonial, Tom used old-growth black walnut to create both the top to my kitchen island and a beautiful 4 x 7-foot dining room table. I absolutely love them both. It’s like having an elegant piece of artwork made from rustic and organic materials.”

The second half of the business model is the Urban Pioneer Group Society. In a sense, what Tom and Sheila do is take traditional social gatherings and restage them in new, creative ways. As the UPG website states, “Under the UPG’s Society, we create experiences, engage people, and enhance lives thru food, gatherings & learning new trades.”

For example, salumi: Tom uses an old-world Italian recipe to cure coppa, the whole neck muscle of the pig. Unlike the making of salami in which the meat is ground and preservatives are added, in the making of salumi Tom doesn’t grind the meat and adds only salt to preserve it. What’s more, he doesn’t sell the meat to customers like a butcher shop would but teaches people in the UPG space how to use old-world techniques to make the traditional Italian appetizer themselves.

People can go to a bar and order a drink, Sheila said, or they can come to one of their mixology classes and learn to make the drink themselves. Tom added that consuming the drink they made is an important part of the workshop, but the more important piece is educational, learning to do it for themselves.

“People want to do and experience things,” Sheila explained. “That’s the unique opportunity we offer people. They don’t want to just go to a bar and have a drink. They want to get instructions and tips from professionals on how to do it at home.

“We are catering to folks from Oak Park, River Forest, and Forest Park who have plenty of disposable income and who are also yearning for something that helps them connect with the past. We are bringing tradition back in a unique, fun way.”

A good example is the Urban Pioneer Society Hog & Cattle Club, which the website describes as “four classes per year. Each quarter you will be able to attend a group celebration that will be unique. Every experience will challenge you to connect with different traditions of the past, from sausage-making to smoking organically raised hogs. Four events and membership costs $200 and each event individually costs $65.”

The Ranch 2 Table Club connects organic farmers who produce pork, beef and lamb directly to club members. The Urban Wine Club does the same kind of thing with local wine experts. 

“We will be offering a variety of classes,” according to the website, “from kids art, adult art, crafts to wood working. We will also offer special events specializing in food & drink designed to feed the soul & our bellies.”

What’s old is the practice of joining clubs. What’s new is that the club meets only four times a year as opposed to the once-a-week or once-a-month commitments, which were the norm for bowling leagues, church choirs and fraternal organizations like the Masons.

“Society has changed,” Tom said. “Technology can make people unable to see beyond the moment, forward or backward. It’s a reality that’s not going away, so how do we take that and hold an event at which they can experience something other than technology? Lots of rituals like Thanksgiving or Sunday dinner in which we did things with family and friends are evaporating because we are chasing things that pull us away from our heritage.”

“I think we are renewing old-world techniques as technology is taking over the world,” Sheila added, “by getting people back to doing things together.”

The Kunkels know technology from the inside. They both came from corporate IT jobs and still make about half of their income from their IT firm, called Noramurphy, which helps corporations reduce their liability from data by providing onsite data destruction services.

UPG also repurposes the traditional by renting out their rustic new space and rooftop for a wide variety of events that bring people together. “We’ve had a wedding reception for 80 people, engagement parties, baby showers, corporate and team-building events,” Sheila said, “and we’ve booked several office parties for the holidays.”

Because UPG is not a retailer, the door to their business space is not always open for walk-ins. To make an appointment, call Tom Kunkel at 847-833-6564 or email him at