For 46 years the commanders of the Starship enterprise on Madison Street have been Henry Laskowski and Paul McKenna. Now they have announced that the iconic sub sandwich and catering shop at 7618 Madison St. will have new owners. The Kettlestrings Restaurant Group, headquartered in Oak Park, will be on the “bridge” directing the business into the future.
Laskowski and McKenna met while stocking shelves at a grocery store on the Northwest Side of Chicago and became friends. When they opened their sandwich shop in 1977, Laskowski was 19 and Mckenna was 21. Armed with high school degrees, $7,000 in capital, and a load of youthful optimism, they pursued their vision of making a great sandwich at a reasonable price.
That goal, said McKenna, “and the principle that the customer’s best interest is our best interest, are the two things that have led to success for over four decades.”
Another asset the business novices had was a trusting relationship.
“We found out by working as stockboys,” Laskowski recalled, “that we worked very well together. We were in sync all the time from day one. We became best friends then and have stayed together all this time.”
They started out at their present location, previously a business named Custard’s Last Stand, by renting an ice machine and being given a slicer that had been in the garage of the father of one of their friends. Little by little they started buying more equipment, and eventually they bought the building.
Starting with a business model that might not work today, the young partners learned as they went along. Laskowski quipped, “We’ve been experimenting on the public ever since.”
Looking back, McKenna said, “We really didn’t have any money for advertising, so what we did was we sold everything really cheap — $1.30 for a sandwich, order of fries and a fountain pop. The word spread really fast.”
McKenna felt some panic upon learning that two other sub shops had opened up in Forest Park about the same time. Then he realized “it didn’t matter what came around us. What mattered was that as long as we controlled our costs and took care of our customers, we had nothing to worry about.”
Looking back, they also believe that when owners take care of their employees, the employees are motivated to take care of the customers. “We’ve always respected our employees’ personal time,” said McKenna. “If they have a sick kid at home and they have to take off — that kind of nurturing has really served us well over the years.”
The two also respected their own personal time, which early on led them to the decision to not open on Sundays.
They acknowledged that the restaurant business is hard work, especially in the beginning. At first they paid themselves a salary of $50/week and after six months gave themselves a raise of $25 more.
At first they received a lot of help from their friends. One, for example, hand-painted their sandwiches on boards. They also received a boost 25 years ago from what was known as Main Street, the downtown business organization that set local business on a positive course. Art Jones, Don Offerman and Tim Gillian were singled out as being especially helpful.
Both former owners are looking forward to retirement. “I had a fews days off last week,” said Laskowski, “and I found plenty of things to do things around the house, playing more golf, picking up pickleball and taking more rides on my Harley.”
“What happens when you are self-employed,” McKenna added, “it’s not like a job where you punch out and you go home. What I think is nice about my future is that when I want to relax I can relax.”
Both said they’re looking forward to going out to lunch at another restaurant, something they’ve been unable to do for 46 years.
New owners bring change
Changes are in the offing as new commanders take charge of Starship. For one, the restaurant will be open on Sunday. For another all three new owners have day jobs. Wil Greenwald is a teacher, Rob Guenther is a lawyer, and Pete Lisnic is a financial analyst.
The three formed the Kettlestrings Restaurant Group, which owns a corner bar (Kettlestrings Tavern), a high end cocktail lounge (Kettlestrings Grove), and a pizza place (Betty’s Pizza and Pasta) all in Oak Park.
Unlike McKenna and Laskowski, the new trio of owners started their first of three Oak Park establishments more as a hobby than as a means of making a living, but Lisnic says the restaurant business can be “addictive.”
Although they spend many hours at their restaurants, the new owners will not be in-house as much as Lakowski and McKenna were, so their business model includes empowering lieutenants to keep the business moving forward while the owners are doing their day jobs or attending to one of the other sites.
Starship’s former owners like the direction the new owners are taking the business. Laskowski said would count the money with paper and pencil and commended the new entrepreneurs for taking the business digital.
Like Laskowski and McKenna, the Kettlestrings Restaurant Group does not do much traditional advertising to get the word out. “The advertising we do,” said Guenther, “tends to be more community support related. We sponsor little league teams and give money to local charities. Everything we’ve done is about being part of the community.”
The new owners also believe that treating employees with respect and care is foundational, like the former owners, they are concerned about self-care.
“I think part of it is that we all have a lot of irons in the fire,” Guenther said, “but we also have clear boundaries.”