Bayless views his role as a restaurateur as a “community catalyst,” and the way he built a network of local farmers shows why it’s an apt description. He recalled a farmer who provided “the most amazing spinach in February” with a uniquely local flavor, but he couldn’t grow as much as Bayless needed.

So Bayless invested in a second hoop house for the farmer. He was repaid in spinach the following year. Thus began a series of small no-interest loans to farmers that could be paid back in product, and ultimately led to the formation of his Frontera Farmer Foundation. The nonprofit provides capital development grants to Chicago-area farms, some $1.2 million in the decade since it was created.

“When a restaurateur grabs hold and tells the story of where food is coming from and the supplier is from the local community, that is sustainability on the ground level,” said Bayless, whose restaurants have earned a variety of green certifications and awards.

“The bottom line is it does come to down to dollars and cents, and we can’t go out of business,” Bayless said about the higher costs that come with sustainability. “But you’re adding value when you can add to that story. If you can cast this as something different, there’s no price comparison. How can you redefine what you’re doing?”