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Difference Maker

Restaurant mogul George Schenk melds the needs of people, planet, and profits

Serving nutritious food, following ecological principles, and helping his community in Vermont make George Schenk a businessman with a social conscience.

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Schenk's aim is to stretch customers' minds but not alienate them, he says. "When we do things that cross political lines and social barriers, we can open doors that lead to places we can't predict," he said recently in an interview at his log cabin overlooking Vermont's Green Mountains. "That is how we improve understanding of one another."

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Schenk often leverages his prominence as a businessman to take public stands on issues ranging from nuclear waste to agricultural policy. He doesn't employ a fixed strategy, he says, but typically pens an opinion article in Vermont's largest newspaper, The Burlington Free Press, and later stages a benefit bake or public event to promote conversations and activism.

A prime example is an informal campaign he started in 1998 to bring local food into public schools. After writing an opinion article that stressed a lack of connection between local farms and school cafeterias, he held a benefit bake and donated the proceeds (about $800) to schools in Vermont's Mad River Valley. He's repeated the event every year since.

Schenk's informal campaigning, says Ms. Wonnacott of the organic farming association, has played a "really huge role" in getting local food into schools. "So many businesses have similar missions, but George is someone who really takes the extra step," she adds.

But Schenk's informal advocacy work occasionally ruffles feathers inside his company and across the state. Some have wondered, for instance, if his plan to serve flatbread in Vermont prisons is the best use of his com-pany's resources when there are so many other worthy causes to support. And in June 2006, American Flatbread's Waitsfield restaurant was the epicenter of a tense standoff between Schenk and the Vermont Department of Health.

Tensions rose after Schenk vowed to serve uninspected chicken raised at a neighbor's farm as a symbol of civil disobedience. He argued that the law was hindering small-scale farmers who couldn't afford poultry inspections. The health secretary countered that his restaurant would be forcibly closed if it dared to serve uninspected meat.

As the date of Schenk's planned "chicken event" neared, his employees feared they might lose their jobs. Schenk averted disaster at the last minute by calling off the event and agreeing to discuss the department's inspection protocols with state officials – negotiations that led to nonprofit groups taking up the cause in the State House, and eventually to the passage of a law permitting Vermont farmers to sell as many as 1,000 uninspected chickens per year.

Schenk now concedes that risking his employees' livelihoods for the sake of his principles took a toll on them. "It created a lot of turmoil in the organization," but Schenk felt very strongly that his position was sound, recalls Robin McDermott, a Waitsfield neighbor who worked on the chicken campaign. "I learned George is definitely a man of action."

A darker controversy ensued last year after Schenk was publicly rebuked for a commencement address he gave at a Vermont high school. According to newspaper accounts, audience members were deeply offended by his use of crude language, prompting a school superintendent to issue a public apology.

Schenk has apologized for his remarks, but insists they were part of a thoughtful speech urging young people to cultivate "internal sustainability" in the face of destructive social and environmental forces.

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