For the Uncommon Good

By Julie Henning

Celebrating its twentieth anniversary, Uncommon Ground is a vanguard among restaurants seeking to feed Chicagoans seasonably, locally and sustainably.

The greenest restaurant in the city of Chicago, third-party certified by the Green Restaurant Association, Uncommon Ground has been a neighborhood favorite café, bar and restaurant for twenty years. Expanding from the flagship location in Wrigleyville, owners Helen and Michael Cameron opened a second location in Edgewater in 2007.

Supporting local agriculture by purchasing locally-produced food, free of herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones or genetically modified ingredients, the Camerons have become one of their own suppliers with the addition of an organic farm atop the roof of the Edgewater location. Farm Director and Chicago Rarities Orchard Project (CROP) founder Dave “Farmer Dave” Snyder was hired to oversee the project.

“As part of the organic certification process, we had to calculate how big our farm is. If you add up all of the tillable land, it’s 644 square feet of about the size of a one bedroom apartment,” Snyder explained. “In terms of acres, it’s 0.015 acres. So not only are we the first certified organic rooftop farm in the country, we may be the smallest farm in the country by those criteria.”

“We want people to come and see Uncommon Ground and understand why it’s important to know where your food comes from and why it’s important to support high standards for clean, safe, fair food production,” said Helen Cameron, “We’re realizing as a restaurant we have a lot of power to educate in a way that is very digestible, in a way that is pleasant and happy and you’re not feeling like you’re being hammered over the head with bad news.”

Looking at sustainability from a business perspective, Uncommon Ground uses solar thermal panels to heat water and reduce gas consumption. Low-flow faucets and LED light bulbs are used throughout the facility, and the tabletops were crafted from trees that fell during a windstorm that otherwise wreaked havoc in nearby Jackson Park. Used oil from the fryers is donated to Loyola University’s biodiesel recycling program. (See: Cooking With Gas: Loyola University Brews Up Some Biodiesel, Spring, 2011.)

“From a business sense, I’ve been able to save a lot of money on energy usage that I can put into my food. The food that I buy is more expensive and it should be. Everybody should be having a living wage from the work that they do, and I don’t mind spending more money on a better product,” Cameron said. “But being more efficient with my energy usage and other things has allowed me to put a little bit more money back into the food and keep the items on my menu affordable especially for the quality of the ingredients that we’re putting on the plate.”

Meshing the food harvested on the rooftop garden with the kitchen creations one floor below, the Camerons harvested just over one pound of produce per square foot from their rooftop farm in 2010—the majority of which fed an average of 200 people on any given day. “What Helen and Mike have devised here is a diorama of the food system,” said Snyder. “Every single aspect of a food system is done here, starting with harvesting seed, planting, transplanting, stewarding, pest management, fertility management, harvest and post harvest processing. And the food is stored, cooked, and consumed on site. The entire thing is built in this very small package, but it’s all there.”

“Because you’re eating something that is so fresh and delicious, that says it all really. In the kitchen we’re really dedicated to not messing around too much with our food. We buy really good ingredients that are local and organic and sustainably produced. We stick to U.S. production, but the more local we can make it the better because we’re keeping the money in our community. Anything we can do to support the development of a healthier, more sustainable food chain—that’s our angle,” Cameron said.

Dedicated to educating the local community about organic farming and sustainability, the Camerons have created a series of educational programs at the Edgewater location called Fridays on the Farm. Hosted by Farmer Dave and the Urban Agriculture interns, rooftop farm tours are open to the general public on the first Friday of the month, from June 3 through September 2, 2011. Food sampling and educational programs on urban agriculture will occur on the remaining Fridays.

The site of live music seven nights a week and some of the best food and drinks in the city, the experience is anything but common.

Julie Henning is a Midwest editor for the online travel magazines, Road Trips for Families and Road Trips for Girlfriends. A member of the Midwest Travel Writers Association, she is a regular contributor to her hometown newspaper in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband and three young children.

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One Response to “For the Uncommon Good”
  1. Amber says:

    Wonderful article about Uncommon Ground. Cannot wait to try it out next time I am in Chicago! Sounds like an amazing place.

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