After 41 years, Starship Restaurant & Catering is on the market, although owner Paul McKenna stressed this isn’t the end of the enterprise. Madison Street’s longest-running business will stay open while a broker talks to interested parties — a process that could take years — and McKenna said he is looking for a new owner interested in building out the business.
McKenna has been fighting the “incredible, emotional decision” of selling the business for at least 10 years. The July death of Val Camilletti, the iconic owner of Val’s Halla Records in Oak Park, cemented the decision for him.
“Before Val passed, she said to me two years ago on the phone, ‘I want to leave here in a box’ because she loved what she did,” McKenna said. “I don’t want to leave here in a box. I do love what I do, but I gotta find something else.”
McKenna, 62, said he is putting the soup and sandwich restaurant on the market now while he and partner Henry Laskowski, 60, are in good health. Starship is listed for $799,000 and purchase of the building with the restaurant included is $1,648,000, according to the Loopnet commercial real estate site.
“We don’t have to sell this place; however, something could happen tomorrow. Then we might be desperate and do anything to get out. I don’t want to be in that position,” McKenna said. “Someone once said to me, ‘It’s important to deal with a position of power.’ That’s how I feel right now.”
Starship opened at 7618 W. Madison St. on Nov. 4, 1977, as part of the effort to build up the village’s downtown commercial corridor. He said the village was looking for businesses that would add value to the street and let him and his business partner buy the building for a bargain, refurbishing the shuttered Custard’s Best Stand with the aim of offering great sandwiches for a reasonable price.
The two opened Starship Enterprises Inc., a name that later got them in trouble with the law.
Two years after opening, Paramount Pictures released Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The studio was trademarking all Trek-related terms, and the Forest Park restaurant’s name appeared to them to be a copyright infringement. Fortunately, a loyal Starship patron was also a lawyer. The firm represented the restaurant for free and negotiated a compromise with Paramount to drop Enterprise and call the business Starship Inc.
Named anew, Starship has since lived long and prospered, to borrow a phrase. Today the business offers 149 different kinds of soup. The sandwich menu has more than tripled from the six original sandwiches to about 30. Catering now comprises a good portion of the business, with delivery drivers traveling as far as Peoria, some 160 miles away in central Illinois; or Hammond, about 38 miles across the border in Indiana.
Over the years, some 20 loyal employees have kept the restaurant running — their longtime employment a rarity in the fast food industry, McKenna said.
“I’ve been to the funerals of their parents, baby showers for their kids; it’s kind of turned into a family,” he said.
McKenna said his two daughters worked at Starship while they were in high school, and that Laskowski’s son worked there while he was on break from college.
“We don’t want to pass the legacy on,” McKenna said. “The idea of selling it to a family member, I don’t want that for my kids. One of them is a nurse at a hospital, the other is a bio conservation major. They’ve got their own dreams, own aspirations, own ambitions. I don’t want to say, ‘Oh, well, here’s the restaurant.'”
McKenna aims to sell to someone with a vision of keeping the destination sandwich shop largely the same but expanding the business. He wants a buyer who will create more opportunities for his current employees, perhaps by franchising the business.
“We’re not looking for somebody who is going to come in and dim the lights to save money on the electric bill,” McKenna said. “We want someone to come in, maybe remodel the front and make people freak out that it’s so much cooler than it was when Paul and Henry owned it.”
As for the future, McKenna is unsure of what retirement holds for him.
“With my brain in this place 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, I can’t even think about, ‘Oh I’ll do this,'” McKenna said. “I have a lot of things I could do; I like to write, I could do music, I’m a creative person. My business partner, he’s the same way. He has choices to make. I just know that as long as the restaurant holds up, we’re going to be all right.”