Chicago restaurants move toward hyper-local food production

2012-02-17T22:15:00Z Chicago restaurants move toward hyper-local food productionBy Laura Mihelich Medill News Service nwitimes.com
February 17, 2012 10:15 pm  • 

CHICAGO | More and more restaurants in Chicago are producing their own ingredients — up on the roof.

These restaurants are converting standard urban rooftops to green gardens to help reduce their environmental impact and support local food production.

Tomatoes and basil for a caprese salad? Just a quick walk up the stairs to the roof.

"We love it because the concept for our restaurant is locally sourced food," said Isaac Weliver, a partner in a restaurant green-roof project based in the Streeterville neighborhood north of the Chicago River near the lakefront.

Weliver and his business partner, Daniel Greenwald, are planning to build the largest rooftop garden in the Midwest, around 20,000 square feet, to go with their restaurant — for now it's called The Local Root — that is planned to open in April.

They want to prove that locally sourced food can be done quickly, as most American lifestyle demands, and in a downtown space.

"Long term, we'd love our concept to take over," Greenwald said.

Local food production is important because it creates a sustainable food system, reducing the amount of waste produced when food is shipped long distances, said Polly Washburn, the development director of Grown Home, a local farm system in Chicago.

"So much of the food that grows in Illinois, leaves Illinois," Washburn said.

However, she said there is a lot of increased interest with urban agriculture, especially as education increases.

The Bleeding Heart Bakery and Café, in the near-Northwest-Side West Town neighborhood, is another restaurant hoping to open a green roof this spring.

The rooftop garden would be a totally different dining experience, said Greg Mohr, co-owner of the Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, which is partnering with the Bleeding Heart Bakery and Café to open the rooftop garden and restaurant.

Guests will be able to dine on the rooftop, surrounded by some of the produce they are consuming.

"It's really a matter of educating people, and once you do that, it's really a no-brainer," Mohr said.

The goal is to make it one of the greenest places to eat and "show people where their food is coming from," Mohr said.

"There is definitely a lot of interest in green roofing, especially when food production is involved," said Molly Meyer, owner of Rooftop Green Works LLC, a green-roof consulting, design and installation firm, who is involved with both the Streeterville and West Town projects.

She said restaurant green roofs also can be used to create a practical but also beautiful space, another goal of the Bleeding Heart Bakery and Café.

"We thought, 'why don't we take these ingredients and make this something special?'" Mohr said.

Green roofing has many benefits, including extending the life of the roof, protecting it from storm weather impact, and energy savings, according to Meyer.

These roofs can save more than 20 percent of the air-conditioning energy load and 5 percent of a heat load, she said.

She said green roofs make sense for both businesses and homeowners because they are more practical to build on top of existing structures than to find vacant space in urban environments.

However, restaurants bring another angle into green roofing because of hyper-local food production.

"Green roofs are inherently multidisciplinary," Meyer said. "That's what makes them so cool." 

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