Getting to know Urban Pioneer

Shape-shifting event space is designed to support local food artisans

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By Melissa Elsmo

Food Writer

Take a stroll down Madison Avenue in Forest Park and you'll likely pass by Urban Pioneer without even noticing it, but lurking inside the understated storefront at is a well-appointed studio and event space ready to conform to community desires.

Oak Park born Tom Kunkel, along with his wife and co-owner, Sheila, officially launched Urban Pioneer Group (UPG) in January of 2017 after spending years toying around with the concept as hobbyists. Today the business functions as both a group and society; the group focuses on reclamation based woodworking, while the society encourages community members to enrich their lives through artisan food, special events, and educational classes.

With a background in rehabbing homes, Kunkel and his wife have developed a knack for creating functional and attractive spaces.The Urban Pioneer space reflects their passion for woodworking in its design and the duo is taking creative steps to ensure it serves as launch pad for young businesses.

Urban Pioneer was created to be a place where artisans can bring their products to market with far less overhead than a traditional brick and mortar establishment. To nurture young businesses, Urban Pioneer currently hosts early morning bakery pop up events twice monthly with a goal to begin hosting them on a weekly basis. In the near future, Kunkel hopes to move away from the early morning model in favor of a longer lasting market that would also include makers as well as more food artisans.

Urban Pioneer pop up events seek to take away some of the burden artisans face bringing their products to market. They allow local food artisans to experiment with their products and get a deeper sense of demand for their offerings while maximizing both time and money.

"We are looking for local artisans to leverage our space to help get them to the next level;" says Kunkel, "if and when they are ready to take steps toward opening a restaurant, cafe or shop we'd always be available to help them build out a space suitable for meeting the specific needs of their business."

Amanda Daly, of The Daly Bagel, has taken advantage of UPG pop up events and bagel craving folks line up around the block at Urban Pioneer to get their hands on her product. In addition to partnering with donut-makers and coffee-roasters, Kunkel sells his own Urban Pioneer Breads at the twice monthly markets.

Kunkel began making his sausage bread at Easter more than a decade ago. The Sicilian inspired bread conveys a memorable blend of Italian flavors. The "swirl of heaven" features Mozzarella cheese, a blend of Italian seasoning, and sausage. Kunkel's original sausage bread, known today as the Luigi, developed a loyal following. Popularity of UP Bread allowed Kunkel to expand production to include three additional varieties.

Overtime Luigi was joined by three brothers: Murphy, Spiro, and José. The Murphy features a swirl of corned beef, swiss and sauerkraut, Spiro is comprised of gyro meat and feta, while the  José features Mexican chorizo and queso fresco. Each UP Bread variety comes in both hearty three pound loaves and bite-sized versions (called jewels) for folks with smaller families or appetites. Make no mistake, these breads are a full meal on their own at any size.

In addition to selling at the pop market, the freezer at Urban Pioneer holds a stock of UP Breads at all times and they will be giving away samples of The Murphy at the Forest Park Saint Patrick's day parade on March 2nd. Additionally, Kunkel has discovered restaurants are looking to make a connection with local food artisans.

"Our UP breads are produced at Mancini's in their certified kitchens," says Kunkel, "and now you can find the Spiro on the menu at Papaspiro's in Oak Park and soon you may be able to find the José at New Rebozo!"

In addition to managing up local artisans, Urban Pioneer Group is working on a meaningful partnership with the Boy Scouts of America. The organization encourages young scouts to "leave no trace" as part of being responsible citizens. Kunkel is using the Urban Pioneer Space to host hands-on, nose-to-tail cooking cooking classes to educate scouts about the importance of pioneer cooking. He will teach the Boy Scouts artisan salumi making and meat encasing. In turn, the scouts will have the opportunity to sell their handmade sausages as part of their fundraising efforts. 

The Urban Pioneer space is available for private events as well. 

"We're following our passion and hoping it all works out;" says Kunkel of his shape-shifting event space in Forest Park, "in the morning there might be a line around the corner for bagels, by noon the room could  be filled with balloons for a baby shower, and the very same evening we might host a 70th birthday party."

Like most visionaries, Kunkel worries his adaptability creates confusion among consumers, but let's be clear, Urban Pioneer is designed to be a community resource. The space exists to adapt to the needs of artisans, artists and folks looking to host an array of events. At Urban Pioneer passion will be met with passion.Visit the Urban Pioneer website or follow them on Facebook and Instagram to stay up to date on events and classes.

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