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Firefly Grill

In Effingham, Illinois, Firefly Grill has become a destination for food lovers from far and wide. We spoke with chef/owner Niall Campbell about his hospitality and farm-fresh cooking.

If you had to describe Firefly Grill in just a few words, what would they be?

Eclectic, high-end, global comfort food.

How did the restaurant get started?

I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 15, starting as a dishwasher. I worked all over—I’d be in the Caribbean in winter and spend summers in Maine. I was helping friends open a restaurant in Vieques, Puerto Rico, when I met my wife, Kristie.

Kristie’s dad is from this little town in Illinois called Effingham. We met some developers from there who were interested in opening a nice restaurant in the town, which at the time had mostly chains. When we got the offer to open in Effingham, we thought we would do it for a short time and then move on. But we fell in love with living here. It’s a great town, and we have a 3000-square-foot restaurant with an attached farm, 200 miles south of Chicago. We opened in 2006 and slowly became a destination restaurant. We’ve created a pretty good following.

Tell us about the farm that’s attached to the restaurant.

Originally, we had about 2,500 square feet of fertile land. It has grown to 46,000 square feet, providing 60 to 70 percent of our produce from April to October. At first, I thought, as long as we can grow our own herbs, that will be great. Then we added tomatoes; we have 32 different varieties. Now we grow eggplants, jalapenos, squash, squash blossoms—it runs the gamut.

What are some of your signature dishes?

The beauty of being an independent restaurant is that we can follow the seasons and be very fluid with what produce is available at the time. The menu might change once a week or five times in a week. In summer, we take the squash blossoms we grow and stuff them with goat cheese and herbs, and lightly batter and fry them. And our steaks are just unbelievable, from our New York strip to the prime rib. Customers come in and rave about our filets, and we take a lot of pride in that.

What items do you typically source from Sysco?

We buy our romaine and iceberg lettuces, our onions, celery and carrots. Our fish—sea bass, salmon. And that great steak I was telling you about, the Certified Angus Beef®, which we buy from a group of small family-run farms up in Iowa. Our Sysco rep took us up there. Sysco understands what I am trying to do. They’re looking for what works best for me and my business. It’s not always about the price point for me; it’s about the quality of the product.

How has Sysco been an integral partner in your success?

I asked for total transparency with Sysco, and it was given to me. Their automated online ordering also helps with that transparency, and especially accountability. Sysco keeps us informed about how things are moving—they give us the higher-level view—in the world of food, and I appreciate that.

What are your plans for the future?

Last year, we bought an additional 14 acres of property that we plan to use as an event space for weddings and corporate parties. We will probably build that out in the next five years. That, plus our farm, gives us plenty of space to grow.