If you are looking for a great place to grab a bite to eat, complete with warm atmosphere and eco-conscious practices, look no further than Uncommon Ground, with it’s two Chicago locations: 1401 W. Devon Avenue (Edgewater) and 3800 N. Clark St. (Lakeview). In fact, the Edgewater location, the newer of the two locations, was named the “Greenest Restaurant in America” this past December.
Last month Chicago Splash Magazine journalists had the chance to speak with co-owner Helen Cameron about the restaurant. She and her husband, Michael, founded Uncommon Ground in 1991. Read on to find out what she has to say about her experience integrating eco-friendly practices into her business, what others can do if they wish to become more eco-conscious in their business, and much more.
Chicago Splash Magazine (CS): It’s popularly believed that it is difficult for businesses to be both environmentally and socially responsible and still remain profitable. Yet, you still seem to have managed this well for the 20 plus years you’ve been in business in Chicago. What is your take on this? What has your experience been and what is the reality?
Helen Cameron (HC): People’s idea is that to go green you have to spend a lot of money, but that’s really counterintuitive, because it is really about conservation. You’re trying not to waste energy, you’re trying not to create garbage, you’re trying to find ways to reuse and recycle. It should, by definition, be more economical.
CS: I think you were able to essentially go against the tide when you started.
HC: We’ve always have that sort of uncommon attitude about things. We don’t really run our business based on the sort of conventional wisdom of how to run a restaurant. Our original location is off of the main street, well hidden. We started really small. We don’t have an advertising budget. But, we’ve always focused on community, building it and supporting it, in our business process. We’ve always had live entertainment and we show art. We bring those communities in. We support them, we give them a place to thrive, and they return the favor. I’ve always been committed to good food. I came from a background where we grew our own food in our city lot, on the west side of Chicago. I learned to garden with my mom, my dad and my grandma. I just have such fond memories taking care of the plants, nurturing them, and being able to eat the goodies. That was like candy to me. That was one of my favorite things, just eating really good, fresh food that just at the peak of ripeness and nutrition and flavor. It gave me lots of great memories. I became a chef, making things from scratch.
CS: Where did you start?
HC: Well, I was our chef for the first 15 years. Before that I was running a hotel. The last job I had, before opening Uncommon Ground, I was the Executive Chef at the Richmont Hotel on Ontario and St. Clair and my husband was the Food and Beverage Director, so we had good experience working together at that point, and creating a successful business. After a couple of years of doing that, dedicating almost every hour of wakefulness to that job -- we were working like hundred hour weeks. It’s a long day. We were open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and you have room service. It starts super early in the morning and ends super late at night.
CS: It sounds like a lot of work.
HC: Yeah, it’s a crazy life. I enjoyed it. That experience is what got me to the place of being able to have the confidence at 28 years old to open my own business. It was originally just my husband and I -- just the two of us working here, but as things grew, and as we got more regulars, it got busier and we hired more people. We expanded and then grew again for a while, and expanded again and then grew again for a while. Then we opened another restaurant. It’s just always been a sort of slow and steady evolutionary process, always folding in the ideas of reduce, reuse, recycle. I mean I grew up -- my dad would say to me “Turn the lights off!,” “Shut the door!,” that kind of thing. As we progressed, I was always instilling into my process -- trying to buy from local businesses, keeping my money in my local economy. We were originally buying our coffee from a really great company in Minnesota, but then I realized, why are we getting all of this stuff from Minnesota when there are perfectly good coffee companies in Chicago? Now we work with two, Intelligentsia and Metropolis. Metropolis supplies this restaurant. Coffee is a commodity we can’t grow in the U.S., there’s still a shipping scenario going on, but when I have to buy in that way, if I can’t get something locally, then I do my best to buy the most sustainable product that I can. All of the coffee we buy is organic and it is very high quality. When you start looking at what you’re doing, and you consider the carbon footprint, buying anything that we can as close to home as we can is the best thing to do.
CS: It seems that back when you started, there weren’t nearly as many businesses that incorporated these sorts of eco-conscious practices or principles, that bought locally produced products whenever possible.
HC: Yeah, there’s been a revolution, and what really drove that for us was -- I mean, I worked all the time. it’s not like I have the capacity to run out to the country to try to find the farmers supplying my local goods, and the farmers market. Occasionally there would be a local farmer when they had a seasonal product, but very often they would be selling stuff from California that the farmers picked up at the main market. When the Green City Market came on the scene -- I think they’re about 12 years old now -- they provided a way of meeting local farmers that were farming at a capacity where a chef could have a connection with them and say “Next week, when you come, bring me a case of this and a case of that.” Now we’re in a place where all my meats are coming from farmers we know, and they are farming nearby. The fish that we buy is sustainable, on the green list. The majority of my produce is either going to be local or sourced as close to home as we can. We really try to stick with U.S. only, even in the winter, unless it's something like bananas and then we’ll try to buy organic bananas. We’re always trying to make the best choice with our purchasing power. We’re trying to focus our dollars toward the systems that are really working in accordance with our mission.
CS: I think that it’s great to do that, because it really does seem to me that there’s this misconception that it costs more, or that you’re going to create jobs by going about things the “conventional” way. Really, if you are going to do things this way instead, you are reinvesting in the community. You are creating more jobs where you live. If everyone did that, we wouldn’t have the shortage of jobs that we have, some of the problems that we do. It seems like you’re creating more jobs by operating in an environmentally sustainable manner.
HC: Well, what happens is things kind of redistribute themselves. By doing what we do we’re really trying to build local economies. We’re trying to provide markets for local farmers that we can fully support, so that they have a livelihood. We co-exist. We help each other. They’re bringing me amazing products.
CS: So it's sustainable in both ways, economically and environmentally.
HC: Right. And then my guests, of course, benefit because I’m putting food with integrity on the plate. There’s a lot of food out there that, in my mind, is more related to poison than nourishment. We are very conscious of trying to eliminate anything that would not be good for you. One of the more difficult things, and one of our goals this year, is to identify where we might have GMOs in our food stream and then find ways of eliminating those items. It’s difficult because the food manufacturers are not required to label whether or not you are eating something that’s genetically modified, but I fully feeel as though we should have the right to know, and then we could decide whether that’s something that we want to eat or not. Europe doesn’t allow it, and it’s interesting, because in our country we have all of these crazy allergies and health problems that you don’t really see in other cultures. I fully believe that what we’re eating as a nation is creating this problem... the Diabetes, the childhood obesity. Much of that is coming from High Fructose Corn Syrup. They are putting all of these additional calories that come from corn into everything, and that corn is genetically modified. What that means is that, typically, when they modify a plant, they’re modifying it so that it becomes a pesticide from within, so that the bugs that like to attack it will die if they eat it. Meanwhile, we’re eating that stuff. Most of what we buy is whole foods and we buy organic brands, the majority of my food stream is actually very clean, but stuff like canola oil, soybean oil, anything made with corn, any product and the myriad of corn-based ingredients that could go into something. That’s the kind of thing we’re starting to try to detect in our food steam and to figure out alternatives that will not contain GMOs. For instance, I could be switching -- and we’re working on this right now -- my canola oil to sunflower oil. Sunflower is not a plant that’s genetically modified.
CS: What about grapeseed or something like that?
HC: Grapeseed is another potential oil. But here’s the thing, I try to keep my prices reasonable. I feel like the quality of my food should also be accessible. It should be reasonably priced. So I am kind of restricted as to how much money I could afford to spend for certain things, and I try not to raise my prices. The game that I’m playing now is to find that item that is going to replace whatever I don’t like, and still have the quality of flavor and deliciousness and ability to work well with it, so that we get the desired results in our recipes, but to also keep my prices fairly reasonable.
CS: It’s a challenge.
HC: It’s a big challenge. Now my chefs -- I’m very fortunate in that both of them are committed to this idea as well, and while they are running the kitchen, I’m the one that’s kind of out and about. If I see anything -- if I get any information on something that I think would work for us -- I get that to them and I let them decide, because as my chefs I feel like I need to give them that. They’re the ones in charge of cooking, it’s their reputation as a chef, and it needs to work with what we’re doing and with the pricing.
CS: Do you have one [chef] at each [location]?
HC: I have one in each. I have Chris Spears on Devon and Justin Martin is at the Clark Street location. They also work hard in our kitchens. They educate our crew about the better food systems. We have all kinds of green stuff going on in there.
CS: I was very impressed with your oil for your cars. I thought that was pretty neat.
HC: It is, and here’s another money-saver. I use my oil for my food. My friends from Loyola University come and pick up all of our used oil. They’ve developed a biodiesel manufacturing plant there. It started as a teaching program about bio-fuels, but now they’re registered with the EPA and they can go into full-scale production. They can sell it as a fuel. The first several years they would come and get our oil, but since they weren’t set up legally yet, we didn’t take any bio-fuel from them. Now, for about nine months out of the year we run our Jeep on used oil, and I don’t pay anything for gas. It cleans out all of the carbon, your engine runs better and cleaner. You’re burning all of your fuel. There’s no carbon -- it burns off. It’s also the cleanest fuel to burn in that kind of a combustion system.
CS: If someone wants to create a more environmentally sustainable business themselves, is there anything you would recommend as a first step, and are there any resources available -- online or in print -- they could use to get started?
HC: Well, for restaurants, in Chicago we have the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition.
You can go online and see what they have to say, check out the Green Restaurant Association website, or the Green Seal website, to see the listing of things that you can get points for, if you were going to certify. Even if you didn’t want to spend the money to certify, lets say -- lets say that you’re not in that place yet, because for many years I couldn’t afford it -- but to be able to look and see the types of things that they would recommend for you to do. You can look for the list and just target the top five, perhaps. Start with something that you think is something that you can actually achieve. For instance, putting aerators on your faucets. Aerators are very inexpensive little gadgets. What they do is they make the flow of your water lessened, so you’re just using less water. It’s a very inexpensive solution to that. You can do that in your home. Your can do that in any business that has a sink with running water. Something that had a huge impact on us here was putting in hand dryers instead of paper towels. I realized, after I did this, that I was saving over $1000 at each restaurant on paper towels, not to mention the carbon footprint that is associated with producing the paper towels, transporting them, packaging them.
CS: Even with the recycled paper, there still are some issues.
HC: Yeah. You’re still manufacturing. You’re still going to be using energy and materials, and not always the best types of things for the environment. To just totally eliminate the need for something like that is amazing. It’s amazing. I didn’t used to like hand dryers until I realized this, and now I’m amused by that, because before if there was a hand dryer and towels, I would always use the towels. Now I won’t do that, because now I know I’m hardly using any energy to dry my hands, and in the meantime I’m saving all of this paper, all of these trees, all of this stuff
that goes into the garbage. That was kind of a big one, and then just buy Energy Star equipment when you can, if you can afford it. Sometimes those items are a little bit more expensive, but then you end up saving.
CS: You end up saving when you use them.
HC: LED lightbulbs. If you take a look at what we have here, these bulbs cost more money. They cost about three times the amount, but last 20 times longer than the halogen bulbs that we had, and they use considerably less energy. When we switched, we switched at the end of a billing cycle, and I save probably $400 a month.
CS: That’s substantial.
HC: And I like those better than CFLs, because there’s no mercury. As bulbs burn out, we’re switching now more and more to the LEDs. In our kitchens we have the fluorescent low-mercury tubes for the lighting, but here we like to use the LEDs. They finally have come in with a quality of dimmable light -- you know golden light that’s warm.
CS: And they are like no-maintenance, not even low maintenance, you basically don’t have to worry about them at all.
HC: But there are a lot of resources -- to kind of go back to your question again about ways to go green. Depending on where you are, what community you live in, you can look at your governing body. Typically there are going to be some tips.
CS: To me there’s a huge gap between the tips and people following through, however.
HC: Well, it’s changing habits. People don’t like change, you have to do it in ways that -- like the restaurant industry, which is one of the biggest carbon footprint industries out there, and is wasteful beyond belief -- you know, really, we are -- but it’s also hard to make ends meet in this business, because it’s very low profit margin. If you consider the fact of “How do I eliminate waste?,” “How do I become more efficient in my process?,” that helps your business succeed. I have solar thermal panels. That saves me somewhere between $6,000 and $8,000 a year in [natural] gas. Then I’m saving $12,000 a year on paper towels. It’s substantial over time. There are a few things that I end up paying a little bit more for, like some of my paper goods and cleaning supplies, some of my food items, but it’s not so much more that it is substantial enough where I am spending more overall. I am still in the place of saving more overall.
CS: What is your goal of moving this on nationally? I mean you have such a fabulous example.
HC: Well, we’ll see. I think something that slowly but surely developing because we don’t advertise. We don’t have an advertising budget, but we are very good at internal marketing, and we have many ways of getting the word out. I think the thing that’s really going to help us is having become the greenest restaurant in the country. That really sets a benchmark for everybody in the restaurant industry that’s interested in sustainability as part of their business model.
CS: There are other restaurants out there that claim to be eco-friendly, to have integrated environmentally sustainable practices into their businesses, and yet, upon further examination, they may really not be all that eco-friendly, or there may be nothing behind those claims. What are your feelings on that?
HC: There are many people out there claiming many things. Most disappointing to me is -- I know too much now. When you go to a place like that and you see tomatoes on the menu in winter, that’s not right. That’s why I was compelled to certify. I felt like I need to put my money where my mouth is. Going through that process actually helped catapult me to the next level, because I really started tuning into the other things that we could do that would elevate us to that next level. I put it into our budget. I made it our goal for the year to get an Energy Star ice machine, an Energy Star dishwasher, switch certain cleaning supplies and paper goods. It helped me to plan ways to keep getting better, to keep evolving. Doing the certification is an incredibly educational process. I’m fortunate that I was actually in a position to do that. But then you can become a member of the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition and they’ll have people to help walk you through it. To me it’s like if there’s a will, there’s a way, and for us there’s always been a will to do things better, to keep evolving.
CS: You talked a bit about your background and your husband’s as well. You said that he worked in the industry as well, correct?
HC: He came from the west coast. He came from a much more restaurant management, front of the house background. So, his background also was good values, good food. We’re a good team. That’s priceless. I could not have a better partner. He supports me fully in all of my crazy endeavors, the roof included, because that was a crazy idea. Because the first time we climbed up there and I saw it, I was like “Oh My God. We can grow tomatoes up here!” It was fully sunny up there. It’s like the most natural thing in the world, you’d think. You grow food on your roof, you bring it down to your restaurant and you use it. Well, that’s all I thought about was that we’ll have some good food in the restaurant. What I didn’t realize is what an amazing community binder, and how much interest there is for this thing that just seems so obvious to do.
CS: Does it help much in terms of insulating the building as well?
HC: In the summer it really does provide a cooler factor on the roof, and so I don’t have to chill the building as much. In the winter it is still cold, and the wind still will hit the roof.
CS: You just said that now people are finally catching on to the green roof thing, but it still doesn’t seem as widespread as it ought to be.
HC: You know, I’m working on that too. With our farm plan -- so 50 percent is about production. I have a full-time farm director.
CS: Do you have the same sort of thing on the roof at your other location as well?
HC:No, it’s just what’s on this property and now it’s extending to the other property because I have a sidewalk farm there. We bought the building at the end of 2010. 2011 was the year of rehabbing the building and bringing everything to code. It’s been under construction for a long time. Now, moving forward, little by little, we are going to develop a rooftop farm over there as well. It’s a bigger roof over there.
CS: Do you sell any of the produce you grow?
HC: No. Everything is used in the restaurant, including the honey.
CS: It’s such a great thing. You would think that it really gets people to consider what they could do too.
HC: 50 percent is about production and figuring out how to produce more efficiently. The money that I would spend to produce is the same money that I would spend if I were buying it from someone else. If I can sort out a way, a system of doing this, where what I am producing is at or below what I would spend buying certified organic from someone else, then I have created a winning situation that any restauranteur that would have roof space would hopefully consider implementing. We’re working on that. It takes time, because farming is a seasonal thing. Things don’t happen overnight. It’s an ongoing process. Mother Nature is involved, every year something different is going on. At Clark Street I am probably going to use a variety of rooftop farming methods, because I am trying to show what’s possible. Hopefully it inspires others to do it. We give a lot of tours and talks. During the season we have a tour time every Wednesday. You can meet up with Dave. For school classes, we do special tours at a time that works for everybody. We’re very committed to the education side of this idea as well. The whole thing about sustainability and going green is that people have to become aware, anything that we can do to help bring that awareness -- and then you can make up your mind as to whether you want to stop using plastic bags, or reuse a bag, or get rid of styrofoam, or whether you want to eat more organic and locally-produced foods. There are a lot of things you can do. There are a lot of choices we make everyday. If you start becoming aware, it is easier to make the change. Right now I am so happy, because I feel like there’s so much momentum and potential to just keep improving. I think we’re just sort of at the start of all of this, at least for the restaurant industry. I’m really hoping to inspire and spearhead more and more people getting involved. I think we’re just slowly but surely sort of slipping in to that getting the word out on a grander and grander scale, because I think that as we continue to succeed it’s just going to prove our point more and more. People are going to start looking at us and going “You know, maybe they have something there. Maybe we should take a look.”
Interested in learning more about Uncommon Ground? Check out their website at www.uncommonground.com, or stop by their Lakeview location at 3800 N. Clark St. or their Edgewater location at 1401 W. Devon Ave.
Photo Credit: Helen and Michael Cameron, Zoran Orlic and Barbara Keer