The COVID-19 pandemic gave this business a run for its money, but Uncommon Ground made it through and now the business is on its way back to pre-pandemic success.
Helen and Mike Cameron
Incorporate a farm into a restaurant? Easy enough in an area where open land is abundant. In the heart of Chicago, though, it’s an entirely different affair. Yet that’s exactly what Helen Cameron and her husband Mike, two experienced restaurateurs, did in 2007. This was their second location for Uncommon Ground – and the first certified organic rooftop farm in the U.S.
“Uncommon Ground is definitely more than just a restaurant,” says Cameron. “We provide education and give talks and tours about urban agriculture. We’ve created community centers with live music by local and touring musicians and show artwork. Our restaurants use alternative energy sources such as solar-heated water and both locations have been certified by the Green Restaurant Association and Green Seal. We’ve been on the forefront of the movement from the very beginning.”
Although Cameron went to school for chemical engineering, she worked in restaurants in college and her mom was in the business when she was growing up. Starting such a unique venture made sense for her and her husband, because of their independent entrepreneurial spirit.
Financial success grew slowly, however, and they often lived on the razor’s edge. “There were many ups and downs, but the COVID-19 pandemic was the worst,” says Cameron. “It was a time of horrible anxiety and not knowing if we’d survive. But we made a commitment to do whatever it took and somehow, we made it through.”
Now, Cameron is seeing sales return to pre-pandemic levels. This is how credit cards have played a vital role in their flourishing business.
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You mention how hard 2020 was for you – can you explain more?
The biggest disaster was being shut down. We could see the slow train coming and then, bam, we had to close our doors. We did carry-out and delivery, but there were a lot of issues.
For a while, we just had to shut everything down. There was also so much fear. The unknown of what was happening was overwhelming. We tried everything, including emptying our refrigerators and setting up a grocery store for our employees to stock up and provide for their families. Then we dipped into our retirement account to meet payroll. We were in a free-fall.
Despite the constant challenges, we kept going. In the end, we had a successful summer, but it was incredibly stressful.
How do you manage the costs involved in running the restaurants?
It’s really expensive – most people have no idea. For example, I’m constantly frustrated by air conditioner units and walk-in coolers. They cost thousands of dollars and don’t last as long as we would like. But you need to have the right equipment – you can’t run a restaurant without them! Maintaining these things is important, but ultimately, they have a shelf life and need to be replaced.
Those are some of the larger costs but there are others, like high-quality mixers, that are $500 a pop. We have to buy all the point-of-sale systems, and they’re expensive. The list goes on, and they all add up.
So, in came credit cards?
Yes, we used credit cards to partially launch the business. My parents helped us with a loan that we used to secure the first space and to cover some big-ticket items, but we used credit cards for a lot of the rest.
This is a seasonal business. Sometimes we’re busy, sometimes we’re quiet, but things like utilities and waste management are continuous. When I don’t have funds to pay them all on time, I use my credit cards. The balance grows in the winter months and then we pay them off when business picks up.
Zero percent financing is helpful. We transfer a balance to a new card that doesn’t charge interest for many months. It costs a one-time fee that is much less than the interest would be. I figured this strategy out on my own. I’ve been doing it for 20 years now, and it has saved me thousands of dollars!
See related: Best business balance transfer cards
Which credit cards do you currently have?
For the restaurants, we have two. One is The Business Platinum Card® from American Express. It had a 100,000-point introductory bonus (this was the bonus offer at the time of sign-up) which is huge, and American Express offers continual promotions that we can sign up for to get extra points when we shop for certain things. Occasionally, I’ll look on the site to see what’s being offered. I like the local deals; recently, it was for a sushi place and by paying with the card, I got $5 back.
The other is the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®. It’s great for points and to take vacations. I’ve had this card for close to 30 years now! American is our main airline in Chicago and I’m a Million Miler with them.
What is your credit management style?
I use credit cards almost exclusively to pay many of our vendors, but the cards are all paid off now. It’s important to not let the balance get too big. That’s why we’re watchful. I’m careful to spend correctly.
I do have a strategy for using each credit card. The AAdvantage is for basic, smaller restaurant purchasing, while the American Express is for the larger stuff and when I want to get the most points for charging thousands of dollars.
What are you doing with the rewards?
I save them up and use them for vacations. I’m extremely interested in travel. In this business, it’s hard to get away. But when I do, I use the points from the AAdvantage card for my American Airlines flights and the American Express Membership Rewards points for all the other airlines. Having these two cards together gives me flexibility.
Traveling helps in so many ways. I come back refreshed and have new ideas. It’s how I get inspired, but also how I get space, rest and regroup. When you work so hard like we do, the carrot at the end of the stick is a trip I can get for free with hard-earned points.
How would you rate the importance of good credit in the business world?
On a scale of 1 to 10, good credit is a 15!
In our early years, no bank would give us a loan on our own; we had to get a cosigner. When we paid it off and developed an awesome reputation with the bank, we became eligible for our own loans – including one for our house. With bad credit, you’ll have to pay higher interest rates and the credit products will come with a lot of stipulations.
As restaurant owners, we need access to a lot of capital, so we also have a line of credit with our bank. It’s a critical backup. In fact, we used it to pay our staff when we were shut down. We couldn’t have done any of this without having good credit.
Can you offer any advice to entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
Don’t let “perfect” get in the way of “really good.” I have a type-A personality which means I am super detail-oriented, so I had to learn to accept imperfection. Try not to make yourself crazy for the extra detail you want. Just be as good as you can be.
Also, find work-life balance; you’ll need downtime. Let your brain relax and understand your priorities.
And finally, what have you learned about money and credit that you want to pass on?
Be in control of your finances! If you don’t know how, take a class and learn. The only reason we are still in operation with no investors is because I’ve been managing our money the entire time. I know our income, expenses, credit card balances – everything to the penny.
You’ll need to make the right decisions about credit cards. Understand the benefits and interest rate. Issuers are competitive, too, and want your business if you’re a good customer.
Oh, and don’t forget that you’re personally responsible for business cards, so be careful with them! The easiest way to build a great credit score is to use credit cards well. You have to play the game.