Visitors to the Art Institute have a couple of dining options -- the casual cafe and the more refined Garden Restaurant right next door. On both menus, eggs play a crucial role, whether they are used in a seasonal frittata or hard-boiled, then elegantly plated with capers, greens and smoked trout. But the in-house food service company -- Bon Appetit Management -- has decided all of its eggs are now coming from hens raised in "cage-free" barns.
"It's so much better for you, it's a more nutritious product, you get a richer yolk, a deeper yellow color for any of your baked goods. It's just a tastier egg," said Brian Williams, The Art Institute of Chicago.
Those eggs come from one of 31 family-owned farms under the Egg Innovations banner.
To go to the source, you have to travel about two-and-a-half hours east of the city - near the town of Topeka, Indiana - in the heart of Amish country. It's as if time stood still. Horse-drawn buggies are everywhere, and no electricity is used. A diesel generator powers the lone conveyor belt that delivers the eggs for packing.
"Well this is a layer barn, that houses 20,000 cage-free egg layers, and compared to a cage operation, it would roughly have 100,000 hens in approximately the same-size building," said Vinson Calloway, Egg Innovations Production Manager.
The hens are fed a daily diet of natural grains, wheat, corn, vitamins and minerals, and even though they have the option to roam outside, they tend to stay inside where it's cozy and warm. But Calloway says at least the option is there for them.
"It means the hens have lot more room to run around in a more natural state, flapping their wings, stretching their legs, dust bathing and perching on, on nests, and enjoying themselves to the most fullest they can."
A third-party humanitarian agency designates whether companies meet humane animal treatment guidelines. Calloway says it's important that an outside company does the inspections.
"It's all a matter of opinion, I guess, but people are looking more for the humane treatment of their animals and how they were raised," said Calloway.
Now one of the reasons some of the hens look so scrawny is because they're more than a year old and toward the end of their laying cycle, but they continue to churn out about an egg a day, along with their 18,000 or so relatives inside the building.
Steve says the Egg Innovations brand is available at local grocery stores throughout the region.
The Garden Restaurant
at The Art Institute of Chicago
111 S. Michigan Ave.