Slippery Slope 

Management issues undermine dining experience at Cunningham's Market

I've eaten frequently at the newish downtown Cunningham's Market in the last few weeks. They do a terrific lunchtime salad bar, made to order for you with up to six toppings included in the price.

The thin-crust pizza by the slice is great despite an unfortunate inability to heat it beyond lukewarm. Some of the sandwiches are worth every dime of their $6 to $7 price: the grilled chicken with avocado and provolone, for example. Others are disappointing. The Rueben, traditionally grilled (and described on the menu as grilled), had warm corned beef but bread as soft and ungrilled as the day it was baked. The Top of the Peak sandwich, described as seared beef with creamed brie, sauted mushrooms and caramelized onions was better in description than in execution. The mushrooms tasted canned; the beef was gristly, gray and inedible.

On other days, the deli salads were fresh and filling. An asparagus and red pepper salad, heavy on the garlic, was crisply al dente. A pasta salad with spinach, red peppers, tomatoes, olives and red onions was delicious in a piquant light vinaigrette.

The dinner menu is more ambitious and adventurous than the lunch menu. Starters include steamed littlenecks; a variation of Oysters Rockefeller; soft-shelled crab; and smoked chicken and goat cheese dumplings. Main dish selections are all over the geographic map: Baby Back Ribs; grilled Atlantic Salmon; a Clam Bake with clams, scallops, shrimp, corn, potatoes and andouille sausage. The desserts are exquisite and rival those at Marigold's.

We tried the grilled Beef Kabobs; Papardelle with smoked chicken, asparagus, peppers and mushrooms; and the Ribs, a perfect summer dish -- meat falling off the bone, a sauce that lets you taste the meat, and a fabulous spicy peanut slaw on the side. Each entre was good; each portion was generous and filling. All of it was pretty tasty.

But some personnel issues I learned about lately have left a bad taste in my mouth.

At any restaurant, chefs can be temperamental; owners are often mercurial; staff loyalty is too frequently disregarded while profits take center-stage. Management styles can annoy, expectations can differ wildly, and life in the restaurant world can be nasty, brutish and brief.

Every story has several sides, but as in Cunningham's case, when an executive chef is fired and six staff members walk out in protest, as recently occurred, could something more than the usual clash of personalities be at work?

It depends on who you talk to.

A common refrain running through the conversations I had with several former employees was of unfulfilled promises of benefits, wage levels, raises and overtime on the part of owner Scott Cunningham.

Cunningham said he had offered to "pay something towards benefits," but only to two of his workers (he said the employees who left "weren't that good"). And, Cunningham asserts, he fired former executive chef David Zuk "because he didn't want to cook."

Zuk, meanwhile, says Cunningham first approached him when he was working at the Cliff House, pursued and recruited him with tempting compensation details, few of which were ever delivered. Frustration ensued. When Zuk tried to discuss his concerns with the owner, Cunningham avoided him. On Monday, July 8, Cunningham fired him. Six co-workers walked out in support of Zuk.

But should any of this matter to us when, really, all we wanted was a bite to eat? Yes, it should. Fairness is at least as important as food. And businesses, which appreciate customer loyalty, owe it to everyone to keep their own kitchens in order.


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