When Michael and Helen Cameron opened their coffee kiosk inside the Century Mall almost 12 years ago, there was just one snag: Chicago didn't offer a business license for coffee carts. So the Camerons finagled an arrangement with the Chicago Department of Health, which "agreed to let us share a three-compartment sink and a hand sink with a restaurant in the mall," says Michael. But they still had problems. "They'd threaten to close us down every time an inspector came by who wasn't familiar with our arrangement." Between the inspection hassles and the low profits, the couple started thinking they'd be better off opening a stand-alone operation.
Then one night in January 1991, strapped for cash, they headed to the Subway at Grace and Clark with a buy-one-get-one-free coupon. Those turned out to be the best sandwiches of their lives. "We looked up and noticed this boarded-up space across the street," says Michael. "We walked over and looked in, called the number on the sign, the landlord happened to be in the neighborhood and let us in." The single-room storefront was perfect: they could use the walls as gallery space and set up a stage for local musicians, and there was plenty of room for sidewalk seating.
They worked on the place for six months, cleaning the exposed brick walls, refinishing the hardwood floors, painting, and setting up a small kitchen--microwave, toaster oven, and espresso machine. All the while they left the doors wide open and brewed fresh pots of coffee, hoping the smell would pique the interest of passersby. It worked: when Uncommon Ground opened in July 1991 with 20 seats indoors and 40 outside, they already had an interested local customer base. Though the menu was small, the Sunday brunch immediately became popular.
Helen and Michael had both been in the restaurant industry for years. Helen grew up in it--her German mother ran the kitchen at the now-defunct Kuhn's Delicatessen. "I started as a dishwasher and worked my way around the kitchen," she says. She met Michael in 1984 at D.B. Kaplan's, where he was a manager and she was waiting tables. She got her first job as a fine-dining cook at the Signature Room at the 95th. By 1989 Michael was the food and beverage director at Rue Saint Clair, a Streeterville bistro best known for its large sidewalk cafe. He convinced the owner to hire Helen as sous chef, and within six months she became executive chef. That same year Helen and Michael got married, and the following year they opened the Century Mall kiosk.
In spring 1991--just as Uncommon Ground was about to open--they were approached by Lois Weisberg, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, who was in the process of converting the former public library branch at Randolph and Michigan into the Chicago Cultural Center. "She was looking for an espresso bar to go into the lobby and asked if we'd be interested," says Michael. With a city official taking an interest, Chicago finally created a coffee cart license. "She had all the heads of the departments involved, and they pushed through a license so we could open when the building opened" in October.
To their surprise, the Camerons now ran both a homey coffeehouse and a fully licensed kiosk inside a prominent city building. When the Harold Washington Library was built three years later, they opened another branch there. "We thought this could really be the start of a kiosk franchise in high-rise buildings," says Michael. They were approached by dozens of private building owners, but found that the licensing requirements they'd so anxiously awaited were now a roadblock to further growth. "We'd have meetings with the building management and they'd be shocked to hear we needed running water to meet the sanitation regulations," he says.
By 1995 they'd hit a dead end with the kiosk concept. But business was so good at the coffeehouse that they needed to expand. They convinced the photographer next door to relocate after offering to help him find a new space, negotiate his lease, buy him an alarm system, and set up his darkroom. The Camerons took out a loan for the expansion, which also allowed them to address infrastructure issues they'd been neglecting. "We had a ten-amp circuit breaker--you couldn't plug anything in besides a radio and a toaster without blowing a fuse," Michael says. They replaced the circuitry and plumbing, built a working kitchen, and installed air-conditioning. They got a liquor license, and Helen took advantage of the new kitchen, breaking the menu into separate lunch and dinner lists and adding daily specials. Current offerings include dishes like mushroom, caramelized onion, and smoked mozzarella quiche; Uncommon Huevos, eggs blanketing smoky black beans, corn, and a brown rice cake topped with ancho chili sauce and cheese; homemade soups and vegetarian chili; and a rigatoni diablo with spicy fire-roasted-tomato sauce, goat cheese, and fresh basil.
Last month the Camerons celebrated Uncommon Ground's ten-year anniversary with a group show featuring work by their former employees, who are mostly Columbia College alums. The cafe has come a long way in a decade: Michael originally lured musicians by posting signs and badgering the administrative staff at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Now nightly slots are booked up to a year in advance by both local artists (Beki Hemingway) and touring bands (David Gray). The art on the walls rotates every month.
And the reason so many Columbia College students have worked there? "This is a good place for creative people, and word gets around," says Michael. "A group of them were graduating at the same time we were celebrating this anniversary, so it seemed appropriate to show their work. We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them."
Uncommon Ground is at 1214 W. Grace, 773-929-3680.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.