Helen Cameron – Uncommon Ground Restaurants & Bars Co-Founder

 In Entrepreneurial Women, Entrepreneurs, Sustainable Products & Services, Sustainable Startups, Thinking About, Walking the Talk

Helen Cameron and her husband Michael own two restaurants in Chicago, under the brand name Uncommon Ground. They’ve been both business partners and husband and wife for over 25 years. Helen is a well-known sustainability thought leader in Chicago – always sharing her knowledge and ideas with the community. I was lucky to sit down with her in her beautiful organic rooftop farm for our interview.

Helen, where did you and Michael meet? 

Michael and I met working in the restaurant business and worked together on and off for three years for Levy Restaurants. We always had a great relationship at work but, we were dating other people. We were very like-minded in restaurant operations, hospitality and service, so when we finally started dating, our relationship took off very quickly. I think once he realized how good I could cook, he pretty much decided to propose right away. We started dating in January, moved in together in February, and he proposed to me in April. The following September, we got married.

Shortly thereafter we were both working together in a hotel—he was the food and beverage director and I was the executive chef. It was a very concentrated and insane learning experience. I definitely learned how to operate a restaurant. After about two years, we realized that maybe it was time for us to open our own thing. We both have had an entrepreneurial spirit from very early on and are very independent people—both of us are the oldest kid in our families.

So, how did you start?

Well, at that time we had no money and no investors. We didn’t own any property or even a car. We decided to start out on a very small and doable scale. We decided to create the first espresso bar in the city of Chicago. So, in 1990, we incorporated as Uncommon Ground, Inc. and the next year, we opened up for business in a very popular neighborhood in central Chicago. Even then, we were already interested in doing business locally. We tried to find a local coffee roaster. First, we used someone in Minnesota, then eventually in Chicago. We also bought our baked goods from a local bakery. It was very small scale, but it gave us a starting point—a place to create our systems. About a few months, we realized the place was not going to be enough to keep us motivated or to support ourselves. We found a bigger location, connected with the landlord, gave him a down payment, but then suddenly we weren’t hearing anything back. The next thing you know, our deposit check was sent back to us. We learned that Starbucks took the space right out from underneath us.

I remember that I had one of those buy one/get one free coupons for a Subway sandwich shop—and we went to the corner of Clark and Grace here in Chicago. We parked in front of this space that was for rent. We thought, wow! This looks like it has potential. We got together with the landlord and, the minute I walked in the space, I could see my business and what was happening there: people coming and going, food and drink, art and music. We already had this vision of what Uncommon Ground would be. We opened the coffee house on July 1st, 1991.

So, did you write a business plan?

Honestly, there was no real formal business plan. It was more off-the-cuff. I was making everything from scratch and we were waiting on people, making their coffee drinks, then getting their orders and making their food. Eventually when we got a little bit busier, we started adding employees.

We also added a second espresso bar in the Chicago Cultural Center, which they had turned into a beautiful cultural center. The Museum of Broadcasting had moved in there and they had a lot of art exhibits, a lot of great activity. That was until the chain Corner Bakery set their sights on our spot and the cultural center gave us 30-days notice.

What did you do?

We decided to shut down our espresso bars entirely and focus on the coffee house & cafe concept and kept getting busier. We continually reinvested any extra money we made and never took a paycheck in the early days—only took what we needed to pay our bills. We ate at work and lived frugally, and we met a lot of amazing people and had live music and engaged with our artistic community. That was important to us—getting to know the artists and our customers. We had people come to our place every day and spend hours there. There was one gentleman that actually wrote a symphony there. We had lots of people come that were studying for law school and medical school. Uncommon Ground was the first and, for a while, the only non-smoking coffee house in the city.

That was kind of a big thing. Our first kitchen was open to our dining room and I’ve always been an avid nonsmoker and I said, “there’s no way anybody gets to smoke in here, because I’m preparing food and I don’t want those two things to mix.” A lot of people thought we were crazy because, during the coffee house craze in the early nineties, it was all about having a smoke and a coffee. But, the musicians who came to play really appreciated it. We brought our idealism into our business. With partners, we petitioned to change the law in Chicago so that restaurants could legally be non-smoking spaces.

I’ve forgotten what it used to be like when smoking was normal in restaurants and bars.

We also had a lot of ideas about trying to buy local food, I would go to the farmer’s markets and realize they are buying food from California and selling it in Chicago, making people feel like they’re buying from local farmers. That wasn’t the case. I was one of the first restauranteurs in the city that would personally drive to farms and pick up foodstuffs to bring into my restaurant and put them on my menu. Since my parents lived on the Michigan-Indiana border, I could go visit them and there were a lot of great farm stands and farms, so I could go pick local blueberries or strawberries or apples and such. I love to eat and think about food all the time and I wanted the freshest, best tasting food possible.

We were a coffee house that cooked eggs on our espresso machine, grilled chicken on a backyard grill, and made French toast and chili on a four-burner house stove. We had 25 seats indoors and 25 seats outdoors and were always packed, we expanded in 1996 and we added  a real restaurant kitchen. We had a very small menu, but it was all really good and fresh and delicious. So, in 1996, we expanded and got a real restaurant kitchen and took out our first bank loan to make the expansion happen. We more than doubled our size. It was very popular, and I went through about eight months of working every day at least 12 hours a day.

The lives of entrepreneurs are so busy…

Yes, and we weren’t prepared to be as busy as we were and I got really physically exhausted to the point I couldn’t get out of bed anymore. But, it’s all your own and it’s up to you to make sure you succeed. It helps to have a great business partner and my husband was awesome. I got to a point where I was on the verge of damaging my health. Mike took over for a while. We moved into a new home and then I started coming back to work regularly.

Helen, in addition to a focus on local, you are an advocate of organic and natural produce and ingredients. Where did your interest come from?

Well, I started to wake up to what was happening in the food industry—that things weren’t as they seemed. At first, I was just like most other Americans, I didn’t ever question what was in my food. I started to learn about where my food is coming from, what’s in it, who’s growing it and, where’s it coming from. When I found out about bovine-growth hormone and what effect it has on cows—like, they’re producing three to four times more milk. I mean, what an awful physical scenario for the cow! Then, the fact that those hormones are in the milk those cows produce and that young children who drink the milk are developing much quicker, girls are menstruating earlier, boys are having small breasts and things like this. I was completely mortified that this would be allowed in our country. I went on a mission to find a dairy that I could buy from that didn’t use the hormone.

Then, the next thing you know, I’m learning about genetically-modified foods (GMOs) and the inhumane care of animals.  I don’t think it’s right to eat an animal that you’ve tortured and that doesn’t get to live its life in a humane way. So, we’re talking about chickens and cows and pigs. In particular, pigs are confined in tiny little crates and they’re really intelligent animals, so it’s just awful to think that they are so tortured. Learning all of this made me search out local farmers who feed their cows grass and raise organic chickens that are cage free.

Was it hard to find what you were looking for?

It was fortunate that about that time, the Green City Market opened in Lincoln Park. We finally had a farmer’s market that had local farmers bringing their goods into the city and established a connection between chefs and farmers. There was local meat, there was trout from Rushing Waters Farms from Milwaukee, WI, and all kinds of lovely produce, fruit, and vegetables. Having the Green City Market really changed the course of what we were able to do at Uncommon Ground.

And, the more connections I had to the people who produced the food I was buying, the lovelier my life became in terms of what I’m putting on the menu and what I can share with everybody that comes.  What’s nice is that Uncommon Ground is part of a community of restaurants in Chicago that care about the planet and care about the quality of the food and the health of our guests. We care about helping to re-localize our food systems and create better food security in our community. Having these local farmers and supporting them and giving them a market for their goods has had really a tremendous impact over the years. If I write my menu according to the season, then there’s very little that I need to buy from elsewhere.

What about other aspects of sustainability?

Well, we expanded our Clark restaurant again in 2004. During that time, we also started learning more about sustainability, green buildings and reusing, recycling and composting. We found out about a guy who picks up trees here in Chicago, reclaims them and mills them. We learned about all kinds of paper goods and packaging—what’s better for the environment and what’s not. We learned about less toxic cleaning supplies.

We have a vision statement–it’s four words and it encompasses so much of what we’re about: Nourish community and Nurture nature. We have a reputation and people feel that they can rely on the quality of the ingredients that our restaurant buys—that we’re committed to purchasing locally and sustainably and organically whenever it’s possible and affordable. We grow and produce everything organic up here in our rooftop farm and we also now produce organic beer.

Can you talk a little bit about this beautiful organic farm?

This farm is .015 Acres and it is certified organic.  We’ve been farming on our roof very successfully for ten years now and we produce way more food per square foot than conventional farming does. It’s very intensive. The organic systems are basically nature helping nature succeed. It’s about biodiversity. A lot of intelligence is required to be an organic farmer. It’s about developing a permaculture system. It’s about looking at the whole farm and having a lot of biodiversity so that we have all kinds of beneficial insects. When the aphids, known as plant lice, arrive to attack plant roots, then ladybugs show up to save the day. When the cabbage worm shows up, we have wasps that kill their larvae. It takes time and effort and studying and motivation. The reward is this amazingly delicious fresh and nutritious food that you feel really good about using in your kitchen.

Can you talk about these gorgeous solar panels behind us here?

Well, we wanted to install solar thermal panels on our roof, which cost about $30,000. We ended up getting a check back from the state of Illinois that was federally funded to the States—plus, we got a federal income tax break for doing that. That paid for about 40% of it. The 60% took us under five years to get a payback on—it’s the amount we saved heating our hot water rather than having to use natural gas. Our five solar panels that simply sit here and collect sunlight to heat our water saves us about 10% of the overall energy that our restaurant uses on a daily basis.

And, I drive an electric car now and it runs purely on sunshine. I can’t tell you how liberating that is. The car is super fun to drive, it’s dead silent, there are no emissions, I don’t have to do oil changes, I don’t have to pump gas into my car and stop at gas stations. When I get out of the car, I plug it in like I plug my phone in at the end of the day. I don’t have to worry about oil from foreign countries. We have 24 photovoltaic panels on our home garage to charge up the car. Then here in our parking lot, we also have an 84-panel PV system that has two charging stations for electric cars as well for customers.

You’ve put in a lot of investment to go green, haven’t you?

I think a lot of people have this misconception that being green is expensive. So, the solar panels were an up-front investment, but look how quickly my return came. I’ll give you another example of something that I did. I never used to like hand dryers. I always preferred to dry my hands with paper towels. Then as I got more involved in the green world, especially in restaurants, I realized I needed to get electric hand dryers. I bought six of them and had them installed and it cost me $3,000. It turns out that, at each restaurant, we save over $1,000 a month on the paper towels expenses per restaurant. So, that’s $24,000 in the first year we’ve saved. It costs energy but not that much in comparison to the cost to produce the paper towels, the energy and water used, the packaging and the transportation of those things and then all the waste created.

You really saved a lot of money – so much for the myth of going green being always expensive!

Not only that, but I spent $1,500 of that saved money and bought a whole bunch of LED light bulbs, which were just starting to come out. At that time, those light bulbs cost me fifty bucks each so I spent fifteen hundred bucks. I waited until the end of my billing cycle and we replaced all the lights all the halogen light bulbs in the dining room all at once and then watched my next bill. Then my next bill was about $400 less just because of the new bulbs. I haven’t had to replace the halogen bulbs over 6 to 12 months because they would burn out at 12 bucks each. Those bulbs have been working for ten years now. Imagine what I’ve saved in addition to the reduction of our carbon footprint.

But, not everything is eco-friendly. For instance, there is no such thing as an environmentally-friendly Degreaser, that needs to be used in a restaurant kitchen for sanitation reasons. But if something is invented that’s more eco-friendly, then I will switch to that. In the meantime, I have to keep my business clean. The thing is that everything’s changing all the time and you need to keep your eyes open for what may be a sensible choice.

So, what are some other things you’ve changed over the years?

I think about things like transporting liquid and how heavy it is. In the early days, we committed to only buying locally-sourced beer and domestic wine. There’s so much great wine here, why get it from elsewhere? That’s an enormous carbon footprint when your shipping something heavy in glass. And, then we started realizing that there are people that are distilling vodka in the neighborhood. Maybe we should stop buying Stoli and Absolut and only buy local vodka. So, we started seeking out our local producers.

And, then, my husband finally got his wish to have a brewery. Now let’s just think about how much beer our population drinks and how we’re moving all of these heavy canisters and bottles and cans of beer everywhere—from state to state. The microbrew thing is just exploding. What’s really great is that our Greenstar certified organic beer uses lovely Lake Michigan water and local grain, hops, and yeast. Our farm produces some of the items that we use in our beer and the yeast is actually produced right here in the city. The only place you can get it is at Uncommon Ground.

It’s great that you’ve been so successful and you keep building more eco-friendly systems.

People thought that we’re crazy. They didn’t think we’d survive here very long. Both restaurants have succeeded because we have connected with our communities, we have healthy, good food and drink. People relate to the arts and music. The reason we’re still here is because people love what we do. We have so many regulars—so many people who are recovering from really serious illnesses and won’t go out to eat except at our restaurant because they can trust our food.

But, we’re not perfect. There’re always places where you can learn more and improve on. I have 120 employees. Do all 120 of them understand what we do? It’s not perfect. We’re always working on improving and there’re always new people to educate. It’s an ongoing process. Ever ongoing.

Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs trying to build sustainable businesses?

I think first and foremost: don’t put pressure on yourself that everything has to be done right away and it all has to be perfect. I think you start out with a working model of what your business is going to be. There’s a lot of really great resources like, for instance in restaurants, there is the Green Restaurant Association. They have lists of all types of actions that you can take as a restaurateur that are more sustainable than conventional ways to do things. I think every industry has something like that that you can have access to. When we started, we made a list of things that would be easy to implement, like using a low-flow aerator on your sink faucets. Less water comes out and now you’re saving water. Then, when it’s hot water, you’re saving hot water and you’re saving all the fuel that it cost to heat. It only costs about a buck-fifty per aerator and a few minutes to install on your faucets. Then, for bigger items, for example, when one of our dishwashers broke down, I switched to a more energy star rated one, which saves energy, water, and soap.

You do things as you can. Pick one thing at a time. Choose to educate yourself about a particular area that maybe you didn’t understand and then, once you understand it, you might have another couple two or three things that you can implement. But you do it over time. And do what’s sensible. And, do what you believe in!

Uncommon Ground

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