Aly Cunningham of Happy Plate Concepts, parent company of Sunnyside Diner in Oklahoma City, worked her way to the top without the title of chef. But her recipe for success is clear: one part fresh, local food; one part commitment to customer satisfaction; one part commitment to community; and a dash of sunshine to brighten it all.
In college, Cunningham faced what many kids go through – facing the all-important question, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”
“After high school, I tried college for a few years, jumped around to different jobs, but realized college was not for me,” she says. “It was then that I made the decision to leave school and start working. I knew no matter what I was going to do, it would be hard without a degree. My first job was a hostess at Applebee’s in Enid.”
Having the determination to work as hard as she could for as long as she could led to bigger and better results.
While bartending, Cunningham still looked for a great opportunity in the food-and-beverage industry and found herself bored. Having free time during the day, she hopped over to a new, exciting little place called S&B Burger Joint. At the time, S&B only had one operation in OKC (it’s now the flagship for many central Oklahoma locations); there, Cunningham met Shannon Roper, the S in S&B. Cunningham began as a part-time server, a side hustle in the restaurant business that turned into something greater.
“A few weeks later, I was moved to management in hopes of the potential of opening a few S&B’s locations,” she says. “After about five years of growing and developing the business, I quit.”
She then partnered with Shannon and Camille Roper to create Sunnyside Diner.
“I believed in Sunnyside Diner because I believed in us,” Cunningham says.
She explains that leaving the normalcy of S&B and creating her own business was a defining moment for her – when she went from employee to employer. The popularity and success of the first Sunnyside in Midtown OKC begat a Southside location, formerly an A&W Root Beer stand with a fun, ’70s vibe. The group’s third location should open this summer in northwest OKC.
Cunningham’s role includes overseeing the businesses. She says managing three separate kitchens revolves around knowledge of operations and firsthand experience. She says you have to get in the trenches and work side by side with the kitchen crew on a slammed Saturday morning. She adds that you must convey to them that customers can taste your emotions.
“I help facilitate a positive working environment; therefore our food is made with love,” she says. “I always tell the kitchen, ‘If you’re having a bad day, don’t punish our guests for it.’ An egg cooked with positive and good vibes is much different than an egg cooked with anger or frustration. It’s important that we have fun. Our guests can taste that.”
SUNNYSIDE YOUR MEATLOAF
“My favorite dish on the menu is the meatloaf,” Sunnyside Diner’s Aly Cunningham says. “It reminds me of my mom. And while our recipe is slightly different, it still takes me back to getting my hands in the mixing bowl as a kid and helping mom form the perfect loaf.”
- Flatten your favorite meatloaf recipe on an oiled sheet pan.
- Spread bacon and cheddar cheese across the flattened mix.
- Roll the meatloaf, starting with the edge closest to you.
- Bake per your recipe.
Note: the bacon-cheddar combination is a game-changer.