Kevin and Deirdre Cunningham, who purchased a Subway franchise a few months ago, said they still find many customers surprised the sandwich shop is black owned.
“People coming into the store are saying, ‘Wow, this is black owned,” South Side resident Kevin Cunningham said.
Located on the northwest corner of North Pulaski Road and West Lake Street in Garfield Park, Cunningham, 43, and his wife Deirdre, 49, have been operating the restaurant since November in hopes of helping the West Side.
The couple live with their five children in Roseland, but Kevin Cunningham’s roots are on the West Side where he grew up just a few minutes from his restaurant.
He said the pair really didn’t know anything about Subway when they decided to purchase the shop. They hope to create a mental shift in the way people think and bring about change on the West Side.
“I know people are just thinking about the money, but our purposes are a little deeper and higher than that,” Kevin Cunningham said.
He said many of the customers surprised to see a black owner are black themselves; one customer still didn’t believe they owned the restaurant despite the fact a previous owner also was black.
Cunningham decided to buy a franchise instead of starting his own business because he believes a franchise has more credibility.
“I have nothing against Ma-and-Pa restaurants, but when you say Subway, it’s a global name,” Cunningham said. “When you can say you’re an owner of a Subway versus I own my own business, people look at your differently.”
Malcolm Crawford, executive director for the Austin African American Business Networking Association, advocates for more black-owned businesses on the West Side.
He said like any community, children need to see people who look like them doing what they want to do.
“I’ve been doing this awhile, and the one thing we don’t do is we don’t brand,” Crawford said. “There is nothing wrong with branding when you say black-owned business; it doesn’t mean all others keep out.”
He points to Chicago’s Chinatown, Boystown and Little Italy and says African Americans need to identify businesses that encourage customers to experience something from a cultural perspective.
“That’s one thing Kevin has done to a degree,” Crawford said. “He acknowledges ‘I’m black and I’m in business.'”
But Crawford said more businesses in general are needed on the West Side, specifically in Austin.
“We need to see more people in every aspect of business in order to change the dynamic of the community.”
Crawford said there’s been a decline in general with people opening up new businesses – black owned or not. He said he preaches the community needs its own business district.
Having a secure place where people can feel comfortable and want to spend time is the key to success, Crawford said.
“A main street is what you need to have a functioning community,” he said. “That’s not the case in black Chicago or the Austin community.”
Not only does Austin lack new business, it also lacks a general place to socialize, Crawford said.
“Fast food doesn’t give the community opportunity to socialize,” Crawford said. “Sit-down restaurants where you feel comfortable and that kind of thing is definitely what we need.”
Amara Enyia, executive director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, has struggled with finding a meeting place besides someone’s office or traveling outside Austin, and that’s problematic, she said.
“The big issue that I see, and this is city wide, there is an assumption that when you live in a community that has challenges, somehow those people don’t like nice things,” Enyia said.
For her, Austin is not a community that is just lacking opportunity but rather full of potential.
“I want other people to see potential and to operate from a stance of potential,” Enyia said. “That what we see with our eyes is not all there is. The way things are is not the way they need to be. We can do some amazing things in our community.”