Helen Cameron co-owns Chicago’s two eco-friendly Uncommon Ground restaurants with her husband, Mike Cameron. Since they opened their first outlet at Clark and Grace in Lakeview/Wrigleyville in 1996, the Camerons have sought community support for their eateries -- and they have practiced what they preached.
“We’ve always shown local art, we’ve had live music, and we’ve always been really committed to supporting our local communities,” said Helen Cameron. “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.”
This approach -- which the Camerons also employ at the newer Uncommon Ground at Devon and Glenwood in Andersonville/Edgewater -- placed them in the forefront of what has become a full-on movement in the local restaurant trade: buying farm-fresh ingredients from small Midwestern producers located within a short drive to Chicago, and crafting menus to reflect what is available in season.
Cameron said this was not easy to do when they started Uncommon Ground 16 years ago, because of availability issues. The big change, she said, came with the advent in 1998 of Lincoln Park’s Green City Market, which strictly limited its vendor roster to local and regional producers.
“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,” Cameron said. “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.”
And with their Andersonville/Edgewater location, the Camerons have taken the “locavore” concept as far as it can go, building what became the nation’s first certified organic rooftop farm. It is an elaborate container garden where they grow tomatoes, lettuce, herbs and other produce that shows up on the plates of Uncommon Ground diners, and it has turned the Devon restaurant into something of a tourist attraction.
“It was worth every penny we spent and every bit of the ordeal and then some,” Cameron said. “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.”
When asked what she tells people to persuade them to focus their spending dollars on local merchants, Cameron turns to the oft-cited 2004 study -- which happened to be conducted in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood -- that found locally owned businesses generate 70 percent more economic activity per square foot than chain stores.
“If you spend your money on a local independent, that money stays in the community and helps develop the community,” said Cameron. “If you spend your money at WalMart, it’s gone.”
Uncommon Ground on Clark
3800 North Clark Street (@ Grace), Chicago 60613
By car: Street parking<
By train: CTA Red Line to Addison St./Wrigley Field stop (1/2 mile walk to restaurant)
By bus: CTA 22 line on Clark stops at the corner of Grace
Uncommon Ground on Devon
1401 West Devon Avenue (@Glenwood), Chicago 60660
By car: Small lot on-site, street parking
By train: CTA Red Line to Loyola (2/5 mile walk to restaurant)
By bus: CTA 155 line on Devon stops at the corner of Glenwood
Written by Bob Benenson, a Chicago freelance journalist now specializing in stories about food, drink and sustainability. Bob’s blog, Cooler on the Lake Shore, can be found at