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rooftop decks (summer)





During the summer months, Uncommon Ground grows a variety of vegetables and herbs in their rooftop garden. Chefs use these crops in the restaurant’s dishes.


Up on the roof: Eateries grow own 'hyperlocal' food

by Lindsey Valich
Jan 13, 2011

Frontera Grill

Lindsey Valich/MEDILL

Chefs at Frontera Grill at 445 N. Clark St. in Chicago grow their own salsa ingredients, including tomatoes and cilantro, on the fourth floor of their building.

Uncommon Ground students




Students watch a demonstration on the rooftop garden at Uncommon Ground. Community education is a large part of the restaurant’s message of sustainability.

When chefs at Frontera Grill on North Clark Street in Chicago want to make salsa for their customers, they needn’t look any further than their own roof for the necessary ingredients.  

From Bell Book & Candle in New York City to Ledge Kitchen & Drinks in Dorchester, Mass., restaurants across the nation are recognizing the benefits of growing their own food directly in their restaurant buildings.

Several establishments in Chicago have joined this movement as well, including Frontera Grill, the Marriott Downtown on the Magnificent Mile and Uncommon Ground in Rogers Park.

“This is definitely a big trend,” said Dave Snyder, Uncommon Ground’s organic rooftop farm director. “A lot more people are doing it.”

According to the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot in 2011” survey of more than 1,500 chefs, 79 percent of chefs rated hyperlocal food production (such as restaurant gardens or do-your-own butchering) a “hot trend” for this year, making it one of the top 10 trends for 2011.

Heightened customer education regarding food resulted in the movement toward more ethically produced meat sources and locally grown produce, said Andrew Weithe, director of environmental affairs for the Green Chicago Restaurant Co-op.


The Co-op provides education regarding sustainable paper products, recycling, energy-saving techniques and other methods of reducing a restaurant’s negative effects on the environment. Through the Co-op’s Guaranteed Green Program, restaurants that demonstrate environmental responsibility are distinguished for diners as “Guaranteed Green.”


“Consumers and diners are demanding local food and sustainability more and more,” Weithe said. “Awareness is increasing and people are starting to be more conscious of their decisions and the impacts their businesses have.”

Besides reducing the carbon footprints of food delivered from miles away, rooftop gardens help reduce rain water runoff and can additionally help in insulating buildings in the winter as well as absorbing heat in the summer.

Restaurants that grow their own food are also able to monitor pesticide use and can grow organic foods with the guarantee that foods are pesticide-free, Weithe said.

“I think as we move forward it’s going to be important to take sustainability into consideration in everything we do for the sake of the health of our planet for future generations,” he said. “If we want future generations to enjoy what we have today we have to take a good look at how we’re using our resources.”

Environmental impacts are a main concern at Uncommon Ground, a restaurant with two locations in Chicago. The location at 1401 W. Devon Street has a rooftop garden.

Snyder said that as Uncommon Ground’s farming director, he is in charge of the restaurant’s 2,500 square foot deck, with plants contained in 12-inch-deep planter boxes made of steel and cedar. The planter boxes hold crops as varied as spinach, peppers, tomatoes, beets, mustard and a variety of herbs.

The restaurant garden began in 2007, when owners Helen and Michael Cameron rehabbed their current restaurant to be more environmentally-friendly.

During the winter, the restaurant grows microgreens—seeds that are harvested when they are only about three-fourths of an inch high—under grow lights in the restaurant’s basement. Snyder said the restaurant will typically grow sprouts and arugula or garnishes.  

The growing season for the rooftop garden normally begins sometime in May.

“Our main consideration is maintaining fertility,” Snyder said. “Fertility is sort of a broad term that encompasses different aspects. Soil systems are as complex as weather systems. There are a lot of different variables.”

He said he modified soil in the rooftop garden by adding extra nutrients. Nutrients are lost at a greater rate in rooftop gardens versus gardens on the ground level because they can seep out of the bottom of the plant boxes.

This is a small price to pay, however, for having the freshest produce available—the reason why Frontera Grill started their “Salsa Garden” three years ago, according to Frontera spokeswoman Jen Fite.

“The garden goes along with our mission of sustainability and knowing where food comes from,” she said. “It’s also great to have fresh, fabulous food that you can use to make a salsa.”

This practice of growing one’s own food is not merely something new but can also be viewed as a retreat to early twentieth century times, according to Snyder.

“One way to think about it is not so much eating more local, it’s why haven’t people been interested in doing this in the last about 70 years?” Snyder said. “This isn’t really a new thing, but more a return to form.”

Snyder noted that after World War II, the focus was more on getting food from grocery stores rather than farms.

“We are now seeing a lot of side effects,” Snyder said. “It has taken 70 years for us to really appreciate that kind of thing. Americans are a lot less healthy, there is environmental degradation from pesticides in water. If we can educate people about making more responsible choices about where their food is coming from, slowly over time the pendulum can start to swing back to something that makes a lot more sense.”