Since 1977, Starship Restaurant and Catering, 7618 Madison St. in Forest Park, has fed Chicago’s unending need for sandwiches. Now, 45 years later, Paul McKenna and Henry Laskowski, co-owners of Starship, are poised to celebrate a milestone anniversary on Nov. 4.
“We’re just two hardworking guys trying to make a great sandwich at a reasonable price,” said McKenna.
The business partners met as young teens when worked as stock boys at Elliot’s Dairy in Harwood Heights. They instantaneously worked well together and formed a fast friendship that stood the test of time. In 1977, the best friends were whipping up sandwiches in a Forest Park apartment when they noticed a “for rent” sign in the front window of the business across the street.
Before long the sub sandwich loving duo had signed on the dotted line and committed to pay $350 per month in rent for their soon-to-be sandwich shop. Thanks to deep sea Naval ships, other notable sub shops in the 70’s were looking underwater to drive their concepts, but the business partners “went up into space” and Starship Restaurant was born. The duo each put up $3,500 to kick off the endeavor and had absolutely no restaurant experience. They each took home just $50 per week in the first six months Starship was open for business.
“We were always making sandwiches and I would joke that we should sell them,” said Laskowski. “I just never thought we’d be here 45 years later.”
“Yeah, I gave myself five years tops,” said McKenna with a hearty laugh. “We borrowed a meat slicer and rented an ice maker. A friend painted a mural on the wall and another hung macrame from the front window. It was like a community barn-raising opening this place.”
Throughout the 45 years, the duo has been loyal to crafting a core menu of five cold sandwiches including the popular Starship, La Nasa, Crazy Club and DeForest Pork offerings. The central sandwiches are supported by a vibrant and evolving array of soups, salads and entrée specials. Today Starship has a rotating array of 150 soups, but this soup obsession started in 1977 when the weather on their opening day was so cold that Mc Kenna worried no one would want to eat a cold sandwich. He decided they should compensate by offering chili. French Onion joined chili on the menu shortly after and Laskowski, who oversees soup production, expanded varieties steadily over the next 45 years. Borscht and Lobster Bisque are 2022 additions to the Starship soup repertory and 80 varieties are available in the grab and go fridges every day. The business is evenly split between restaurant customers and catering orders. Starship is no stranger to large scale catered events, corporate picnics and school lunch programs. The shop’s catering arm started in 1985 when the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl and sales of party subs skyrocketed.
Thanks to a unique combination of consistency and a willingness to adapt, Starship’s profits have always made a steady climb with a few notable exceptions. Starship saw a dip in business in 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks, in 2008 after the housing market collapsed, and again in 2020 as result of the global Covid pandemic. McKenna is clear, however, that 2021 was Starship’s best year ever and 2022 is on track to be even stronger.
“We’ve built our business on the belief that our customer’s best interest is our best interest,” said McKenna. “We treat our customers right and we treat our employees right.”
That simple philosophy has paid off. According to conservative calculations, over the 45 years Starship has been in business they have sold approximately 3,931,200 cups of soup and 11,466,000 sandwiches. Laskowski and McKenna are proud to say six employees on their team have been with them for more than 30 years.
McKenna had a hip replacement, Laskowski is always putting on his glasses and both are admittedly a little hard of hearing, but the partners are clear the trust they have built between them is exactly the same as it was when they opened the doors to Starship 45 years ago.
“I still think it’s weird that we have customers that get off an airplane and come straight here for a Starship,” said Laskowski. “It makes me proud that we’ve built this all on trust and it has become both a sandwich and a destination.”
“I am most proud of the last sandwich I made,” said McKenna. “I love making someone’s day. I do that one sandwich at a time, day in and day out.”
Though the duo is looking to retire their goal is to find a buyer who can help Starship remain strong, vibrant and healthy for years to come. In the meantime, McKenna and Laskowski are inviting the public to celebrate their 45th anniversary on Friday, Nov. 4. They will have free cake for the first 250 customers and give aways throughout the day.