Chicago restaurants go green

By Matt Watson

An array of vegetables and solar panels share the rooftop deck of Uncommon Ground, 1401 W. Devon Ave., and provide the restaurant with fresh produce and energy, as well as a sense of pride in being the nation’s first certified organic rooftop farm. With a three-star rating from the Green Restaurant Association, Uncommon Ground is Chicago’s most sustainable diner.

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The Rogers Park establishment is just one of the green restaurants popping up across the city. A few years ago, the high costs involved in making a restaurant sustainable stopped most entrepreneurs from following this path, according to Dan Rosenthal, founder of Green Chicago Restaurant Co-op, which helps restaurants go green by marshalling resources to reduce costs. However, growing awareness about food safety and the environment has led to a surge in consumer demand for organic restaurants that buy local, compost their trash and reduce their carbon footprint, among other things.

“As more and more recalls are announced, and more people die of antibiotic-resistant bacteria getting in the food chain, the public is becoming more aware,” Rosenthal said. “That’s the biggest poster child. The signs are pointing upward that consumers are winning this fight and big agribusiness will follow suit.”

While many industries are making the leap to go green because of federal and state government tax breaks for solar panels and low-flush toilets, restaurants have a unique opportunity to create a larger impact with sustainability than other businesses do.

According to Paul Fehribach, chef and owner of Big Jones, 5347 N. Clark St., food production and service has a cumulative effect on the environment. Big agricultural companies that control most of the food market use chemicals that damage the soil and pollute water sources, he said. From there, transporting food from large farms to urban areas burns fossil fuel, throwing pollutants into the atmosphere. Restaurants produce a huge amount of waste, he added, and throw away a large portion of their food.

“When you choose a system that doesn’t value the land, the food or the water, you’ll find down the line [big agribusiness] doesn’t value human life,” Fehribach said. “They don’t value the consumers in that they’re willing to have cow [feces] in the beef going to market.”

Helen Cameron, co-owner of Uncommon Ground, said more chefs and restaurateurs are opening their eyes to this and taking steps to become sustainable. Most food

products can be composted instead of thrown in the trash, and using recyclable materials also cuts down on garbage, Cameron said. Uncommon Ground throws out almost nothing, she added.

Buying local is another factor. By patronizing local farms, Cameron said, chefs know what goes into their food. Unlike big agribusiness, small farmers generally don’t use chemicals and methods that harm the environment, such as feeding animals antibiotics or producing genetically modified food, she said.

“The biggest part of the struggle is to get genetically modified food labeled in [America]t,” Cameron said. “We don’t know what we’re eating right now, and there are a lot of health problems in this country due to that fact.”

Buying local and using only high quality products might drive up costs, but there are plenty of ways to go green economically, Cameron said. The solar panels at Uncommon Ground supply 10 percent of its energy, and the restaurant recently installed LED lights and Dyson hand dryers, which Cameron said have already paid for the initial investment with savings from energy use.

With a still-shaky economy, more restaurants are seeing the potential for savings by going green, Rosenthal said. While the industry continues to expand and more consumers awaken to the sustainable movement, there is a long way to go, according

to Rosenthal.

Big agribusiness still controls the vast majority of the market, and many consumers are still hesitant to pay more for high quality food.

“It took a generation for people to do a simple thing like recycling,” Fehribach said. “It’ll take another generation for people to eat well because it’s out of sight, out of mind with food production. [Consumers] don’t see anything but the price.”

Cameron said she sees hope in City Hall, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has picked up where former-Mayor Richard M. Daley left off and voiced support for urban farming and green industry.

Chicago is known for its green initiatives, such as being the first city in the world to have a LEED Platinum certified

municipal building.

“I see the momentum in Chicago really growing,” Cameron said. “The city government is very keen on going green. If we keep bonding together and keep creating a stronger voice, we’ll have a lot more momentum.”