The 'Eat Local' Ethos of Chicago Uncommon Ground

The Unwrap Chicago campaign organized by the non-profit Local First Chicago is mainly focused on persuading consumers to do their holiday shopping at locally owned small businesses. But it is also calling attention to restaurants -- such as Uncommon Ground, which has two locations on the North Side -- that are locally owned.

Chicago's Uncommon Ground Devon restaurant

The Uncommon Ground restaurants, located in Edgewater at Devon and Lakewood and in Wrigleyville at Clark and Grace, are co-owned by Helen Cameron and her husband Michael. A story I wrote about Uncommon Ground for Unwrap Chicago's blog can be found here.

Helen Cameron said in an interview that the restaurants have had a "buy local" ethos since their inception in the 1990s.

"Throughout the course of our history, we’ve always shown local art, we’ve had live music, and we’ve always been really committed to supporting our local communities. Buying from local people whenever it was possible, supporting a lot of the local nonprofits by being very reasonable about having events and such, for fundraising, awareness-raising and that sort of thing," Cameron said. "So it started very grass-roots, very community-focused, over our 21-year lifespan."

It is hard to get more local than growing produce on your roof. And while Uncommon Ground obtains most of its meat, vegetables and fruit from farms in the region, its claim to fame is the container garden atop its Edgewater location for which the Camerons obtained the first-ever federal certification for a rooftop organic farm.

Rooftop organic farm at Chicago's Uncommon Ground restaurant

Excerpts from the interview with Helen Cameron follow:

Benenson: How did Uncommon Ground came about?

Cameron: My husband and I were running a hotel operation downtown, and decided we wanted to venture out on our own. We didn’t really have any money, so we did a very small project. It was an espresso bar, the first espresso bar in the city, based on the kind of things that were going on in Seattle. This was in 1991... A couple of months into that, it’s such a tiny business, my husband and I didn’t really have quite enough work to do after running a hotel. So we decided we wanted to open more of a restaurant-based type of a thing, but again, with limited funds, we started real small.

So we found our storefront on Grace. It was right down the street from where we lived, so we thought we understood the neighborhood really well. So we opened the first kind of full-service, independent coffeehouse in the area... We cooked everything from scratch, we made the coffee drinks, we did all the cleaning and customer service. Then eventually, our company grew. We started hiring employees and we got busier and busier, and over the years we started expanding.

In 1996, we took over the storefront that was immediately west of us, and finally were able to put in a full-scale kitchen... In 1997, we added a liquor license, and at that point, we became a full-on restaurant.

Throughout the course of our history, we’ve always shown local art, we’ve had live music, and we’ve always been really committed to supporting our local communities. Buying from local people whenever it was possible, supporting a lot of the local nonprofits by being very reasonable about having events and such, for fundraising, awareness-raising and that sort of thing. So it started very grass-roots, very community-focused, over our 21-year lifespan.

I was always very keen on trying to buy locally produced food, though in the early years, that was really difficult. You could go to a farmers’ market, and you would be pretty much buying food that came in from California that people would pick up from the downtown markets and bring it to the farmers’ market and sell it there, basically... Over the years, especially once the Green City Market opened, and they were very specific about what could be brought into their market, it had to be locally produced, that really started a major trend in the city, where chefs could go and meet local producers and develop relationships with them and buy their products. That was a real boon to those of us who really care about that sort of thing. It started connecting us with our meat producers as well.

Our menu basically is written in a seasonal fashion, we change it continuously to reflect what’s going on in the season. As we do that, we can pretty much support those local farmers. Now over the years, we have some pretty great relationships with people, a great chain of supply. The restaurants are quite busy, so we can really support our farming families in a good way.

Benenson: The "buy local" concept has expanded a little bit, but being here in the Midwest, you certainly have a lot of producers within a reasonable drive.

Cameron: Far less of a distance traveled than California or elsewhere in the world... So the idea, basically, the method is to buy as close to home as possible from people that we know, people who we’ve visited, so we feel certain of their integrity, and how they match up to our mission. If we can’t do that, then we look to the organic certification, we try to buy as much organic product as we can.

It also has to work within our pricing, but that’s gotten better over the years. We’re able to buy more and more organic products to the point that we’re bringing in all dairy and eggs and those types of things... Coffee and tea, we buy certified organic, fair trade. Our cocoa, fair trade...

If you even look at our bar, we’re very unusual. We don’t have Absolut Vodka there. Why would we import vodka when basically in our neck of the woods, I’m talking about a quick drive, we have many choices of beautiful products? Vodka, gin, rum, whiskey and bourbon. The majority of our liquor, the main stuff is actually coming from the Midwest, but a lot of it’s coming our regional area, which is awesome.

When we talk about importing beer, we’re talking about bringing a beer in from another state...We’re actually about to open a brewery, we will be producing our own beer... We have a storefront that we’re building out for our brewery at the Clark Street location.

Benenson: As a restaurant, when did you first perceive the whole idea of "farm to table" as really getting traction in the public consciousness?

Cameron: The founding of the Green City Market was that pivotal moment, because here’s something that is highly visible in the city and also highly committed to creating the rules of the road for their market and saying whatever people are bringing here to sell has to come from the area... By bringing that market into the city, to a place that is fairly accessible to a lot of the better chefs and people who are really committed to this idea, you started forming really strong connections, and that really helped our local farmers to build their businesses...

Benenson: The rooftop organic farm you built is a step beyond all this. What was the genesis of that idea?

Cameron: Well, I grew up in the city with European parents, and we always grew food in our backyard. That was one of the nicer experiences of my childhood, was being able to play in that beautiful garden and to help out and grow things and, of course, then to eat them... There’s just something about growing your own.

So when we were looking at the Devon building to purchase that, we had a day when we got a ladder to look at the condition of the roof and you want to make sure the roof is solid. Mike was holding the ladder for me and I climbed up to the roof and it was February and the sun was shining. As soon as my eyeballs cleared that parapet wall, I saw that huge wide open space with that silver reflective coating on the roof, I was like, oh, my God, we can grow food up here. It was full-on sunshine. And the first thing that popped into my head was tomato. I think about food all the time. So I had a big, fat, juicy heirloom tomato in my head. When Mike climbed up and started looking around, we pretty much right away decided that we were going to grow food up there... What we didn’t realize was how big a deal that was to become. Now we’re so advocating for urban agriculture, organic production, grow your own whenever you can. Most restaurants are growing at least some small measure of their food, the Clark Street location will eventually be growing on the roof of that building...

Benenson: You had to build a superstructure. That took a lot of commitment.

Cameron: I have to tell you, it was worth every penny we spent and every bit of the ordeal and then some. In purely dollars and cents, it may take me quite a while to see a return on my investment. But if you factor in the level of attention that we have gotten, not just in our area, but worldwide. People come from all over the world to see what we’re doing. Things have been published about us all over the place. People are using our model in India, in a variety of places. We are working on really developing a prototype growing system that others can hopefully duplicate, in a cost-effective manner, to produce a good amount of food.

We’re on our fourth full growing season right now, we had a half-season our first year... We continue to learn from the farm, the farm continues to teach us, and we keep trying to figure how to get better and better at producing as much food as we can up there. The idea of a certain amount of food that we’re trying to produce, but it’s also the idea of producing items that are very high-value to the restaurant...

We’re probably the only people who have a rooftop farm director on salary year-round to grow food and educate about sustainable food systems. We have interns that have a curriculum with him during the summer, we do all kinds of group tours at every age. Lots of kids come and get connected with where food comes from, but we get a lot of adults as well. The idea is to really connect people with urban agriculture and how important that is going to be moving into the future as the population continues to grow, as we continue to degrade our farmland, cities are going to have to figure out how to produce some measure of their own food for food security...

The idea of urban agriculture and creating either community gardens or farm systems in the city, that creates community. That builds a whole separate economy unto itself. It’s very rewarding... It gets people thinking when you see it like that, you realize it’s not that hard, it can be done, I can grow my own stuff.

Benenson: What was your reaction when you learned in order to get certification, you had to go through the same process as if you’d had 200 acres out in central Illinois?

Cameron: The reason I did was for that reason exactly, because we work with a lot of farmers. Not everybody is certified organic, some are and some are not. Those who are not are farming in that fashion, sustainably. Everybody has a different opinion about the certification. Our biggest concern is we want to work with farmers who are concerned about sustainability and taking care of the environment, and are not using herbicides and pesticides that damage the earth. All of our farmers don’t do that. What I really wanted to learn was what does organic certification actually mean, what does a farmer have to go through to get that. Why do some farmers want to do that and others don’t?

To be honest, for us, the certification was actually super easy. Because first of all, it’s 0.15 acres, it’s a postage stamp compared to most other farms. When we built it, we built it with the idea of farming organically, so we used cedar, which is untreated wood, and steel, good materials that will last a last time but will not have any negative impact on the environment. We bought organic soil, organic seed, we bought organic compost and fertilizers. Our inputs were very easy to document. We don’t have neighboring farms, so we don’t have to worry about runoff or spray or whatever...

The fertility issue is really the biggest issue with rooftop farming. It took us a while to figure it out, but basically our fertility is compost, and a good size load of it in the spring, to reinoculate the life into the soil...

Benenson: When you started that coffee shop, the dynamics were challenging urban community environments like ours, people moving to the suburbs, malls and big box stores causing difficulties for mom-and-pop businesses. Have we turned that ship around?

Cameron: When we opened, Starbucks already had been coming into the city, and the first location that we wanted to take, and we had actually put a down payment on the rent, was on Broadway and Roscoe. The landlord there had taken our money and we were prepared to go in and do our coffeehouse in that location. Then suddenly we were unable to get back in touch with the landlord, it was the weirdest thing. Then he got in touch with us, we got our deposit check back in the mail. He never really talked to us, and we were very disappointed, he told us we had the space and the next thing we know we have the deposit check back. We hadn’t signed the lease yet but we were in the process of getting that set up with him. Well, Starbucks went in and obviously gave him a better offer...

When we found our location on Grace, finding that location was actually much better for us than that Broadway space, we were about to develop and grow and expand there, and now we own the building, 20 years later, after paying rent for 20 years. It’s definitely a more substantial setup for us. Having that door closed on that space was okay, in hindsight. But it was kind of a painful loss at the time.

As time went on and we opened Uncommon Ground, failure really is not an option for Mike and I, we were very much into that full service, be a community center kind of place, and that was why we succeeded. We didn’t advertise. We worked directly with our community. We supported them and they supported us...

Benenson: Why is it important to participate in the "buy local" movement?

Cameron: I’m the queen of telling everybody to buy local. Typically I make the argument of the big Andersonville study [conducted in the Chicago neighborhood of that name in 2004], if you spend your money on a local independent, that money stays in the community and helps develop the community...

It’s nice to support people face to face, especially like our farmers, because you really understand the impact you have on them, when you provide a market. Then you see a family flourishing, you really understand the impact you have on the people that you work with. ... People get it if you put it in those terms, a personal level. Also the food is a lot better. It’s just been picked, it hasn’t been sitting in a container somewhere and driving 1,500 miles.

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