Most restaurants with a local food bent talk about “food miles”—the distance ingredients travel from their source to the restaurant kitchen. At Uncommon Ground in Chicago, the owners can talk in terms of footsteps. The restaurant grows some of its produce right above the kitchen in a rooftop farm on Devon Avenue.
Covering 640 square feet, the farm can’t supply all of Uncommon Ground’s produce needs, but it does produce over 800 pounds of produce all on its own. Sweet and hot peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, fresh bush beans, mustard greens, and various herbs all thrive in the raised rooftop beds. The farm includes several seed varieties included in Slow Food USA Ark of Taste, a program dedicated to preserving rare and endangered foodstuffs. The roof also houses a handful of beehives. The farm is certified organic and during the growing season it offers weekly public tours on Wednesdays for a $10 fee.
“The Rooftop Farm at Uncommon Ground isn’t just about vegetables,” the restaurant’s website states. The garden offers summer internships to help give aspiring urban farmers some hands-on education. On occasion, Uncommon Ground even offers diners the chance to eat on the rooftop, offering a special family-style menu and a chance to pick your own salad.
The menu leans toward bistro-style comfort food classics such as meatloaf, steak frites and macaroni and cheese. Vegetarians will enjoy the chili, the quinoa burger or a vegetable ragout. On Fridays, Uncommon Ground holds a fish fry, a tradition around the Great Lakes region. In keeping with its vision as a community resource, Uncommon Ground offers both a kids’ menu and regular drink specials at the bar. Order their special cocktail and they’ll donate to a program that plants and preserves local orchards.
Uncommon Ground on Devon is actually the second location of this local chain. The first, on Clark, has been in business for over 20 years. The Clark Street location recently joined the urban agriculture movement with a sidewalk garden of its own.
The rooftop farm grabs the attention, but it’s hardly the only sustainable initiative Uncommon Ground has implemented. The restaurant donates used fryer oil to Loyola University’s biodiesel production program and it uses solar panels to heat its hot water. All of its paper products, from menus to toilet paper, utilize recycled fibers. It uses eco-friendly cleaning products and biodegradable to-go containers. They even offer customers who bike or walk to the restaurant a 10% discount.
As a result of all these efforts, in 2011 Uncommon Ground on Devon was named the Greenest Restaurant in America by the Green Restaurant Association. The Clark Street location came in second.
Both Chicago restaurants have a strong commitment to local community. Co-owners Helen and Michael Cameron hired local artists to adorn the restaurant and local craftspeople to install its seating. All of the table tops were locally crafted utilizing timber from fallen trees in Jackson Park. They patronize local suppliers as well as local farmers, and hired a local designer for their website needs. “Keeping our money in the local economy is very important to us,” Helen Cameron told Chicago Business. All of its contractors are listed with their contact information on the website. Local musicians perform most evenings and there’s a regular open mic night.
All in all, Uncommon Ground is simply a comfortable Chicago neighborhood joint—one where an ethos of sustainability is woven into every aspect. Imagine a world where every corner tavern had a rooftop garden and you’ll be picturing the world that Uncommon Ground hopes to comfortably inhabit someday soon.
Visit the Uncommon Ground website
Learn about other restaurants that grow their own food