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You Stole My Peppers! Chicagoans Snatching Produce From Restaurant Gardens

By Janet Rausa Fuller | July 20, 2015 5:59am

Uncommon Ground's extensive sidewalk garden has had its share of thieves. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]

CHICAGO — The planter boxes in front of Uncommon Ground in Wrigleyville are in bloom. There are shishito peppers growing next to tomatoes and eggplant and fragrant swaths of chives, mint, tarragon, lovage and lemongrass.

It's enough to turn any gardener green with envy — or worse. Indeed, two weeks ago, someone ran off with an entire lemon basil plant, owner Helen Cameron said.

Ah, summer in Chicago, a time for alfresco meals, verdant patios ... and garden theft.

Restaurateurs who choose to plant more than flowers on their sidewalk patios know that doing so requires a hardy "grower beware" mentality. This is the city, after all. There are factors to contend with beyond Mother Nature's usual curveballs: CTA bus fumes, flyaway garbage, aggressive squirrels.

But sticky-fingered strangers are a category unto themselves, their actions not exactly encouraged by restaurants but never strongly discouraged, either. Their motives could be anything: curiosity, carelessness, inebriation, hunger. Who knows?

Take, for instance, the two neighborhood "punk rockers," dressed all in black, who stood and snacked at the window boxes outside Pleasant House Bakery in Bridgeport last week.

"It was such a great image," said chef and owner Art Jackson, who had just driven up to the restaurant at 964 W. 31st St. "They were just nibbling on English peas and having a conversation."

Janet Fuller says what's stolen outside was meant for plates inside:

Still, otherwise harmless vegetable-picking pedestrians can become a thorn in a restaurant's side, especially when what's being pilfered is intended for the kitchen, as is the case at Uncommon Ground.

Given the garden's prominence on Waveland Avenue and proximity to Wrigley Field, Cameron knows shenanigans are bound to happen, not all of it welcome. (She's quick to add, "I don't want to put it all on the Cubs fans. It's other people, too.")

Returning to the restaurant from a Cubs game a few weeks ago, Cameron saw that the wooden sticks used to identify the plants weren't in the soil where they should be.

"Someone had walked by, pulled each of them out and flung them on the sidewalk," she said.

Herbs and vegetables are marked with wooden sticks in the patio garden at Uncommon Ground in Wrigleyville. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]

John Ross, a partner at B. Hospitality Co., which owns The Bristol and Balena, can recall plenty of people helping themselves to produce grown at other restaurants where he's worked.

That's why there are only flowers and nothing else edible in the planters at Formento's, B. Hospitality's newest restaurant at 925 W. Randolph St., he said.

The most memorable anecdotes hinge on the determination and outright boldness of some.

Last summer, Cameron grew Beaver Dam and chilhuacle peppers, two unusual heirloom varieties. Beaver Dams require a trellis. It takes some effort to dig them up. And yet...

"Someone really had a shining for those peppers," Cameron said.

He or she made off with one plant and sporadically, over the next two months, tried to uproot more, to no avail.

During the school year, Jackson looked out the window of Pleasant House to see a young boy in his school uniform peeking in, his head popping up over the chili peppers growing in the window boxes.

"Then I saw his hand swoop in and pick, pick, pick. I went out and he was running down the street," Jackson said with a laugh.

Sometimes, most of the time, you just have to laugh.

What grows in front of Pleasant House (English peas, dragon tongue beans and pattypan squash this summer) is there to foster community more than to fill out a cook's mise en place, Jackson said.

"It's part of the business, but it's not there to make money for the business," he said. "You're creating all these experiences and memories and good times around it. That's the real value."

So whenever Nadine, the neighborhood crossing guard, asks to snip some oregano to use at home — she always asks, Jackson said — it's cool.

The tomatoes are coming along outside Uncommon Ground, 3800 N. Clark St. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]

At Lula Cafe, 2537 N. Kedzie Ave., the children of owners Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds have been known to eat the edible flowers in the planter boxes, prompting other youngsters to follow suit.

Cameron could put up signs up at Uncommon Ground to discourage picking, but she doesn't. She takes the losses as they come and fills in the holes with new plants.

"I feel like it's a social experiment," she said. "The general consensus is one of respectfulness. When our farm managers are out there, you see the amount of interest, especially by children and their parents. It's a very positive situation ultimately."

As for those who just can't help but help themselves to the garden, Cameron said she and her husband Michael have been in the business long enough to expect and accept them.

"It's the foibles of human nature," she said.

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