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.

By , Correspondent

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    George Schenk founded American Flatbread pizza as a way to showcase local produce and advocate for both community and global causes.
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In the fall of 1979, George Schenk stuffed all his worldly possessions into his pickup truck and moved from upstate New York to central Vermont. After settling in the sleepy ski town of Waitsfield, he began working as a dishwasher, freelance photographer, and live-in baby sitter.

He also apprenticed at local restaurants and learned from chefs who were cooking in ways that emphasized local and regional ingredients. By 1985, Mr. Schenk was selling his own "flatbread," a variation on the brick oven-style pizza he'd eaten as a teenager, topped with Vermont produce.

Serving nutritious food, he realized, was a good way to promote the kind of community values he'd absorbed in his Connecticut childhood and the ecological principles he'd embraced in his previous careers as a farmer and forester.

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"I felt as though the environmental dimension of food needed a voice," Schenk recalls. Today, American Flatbread operates three popular Vermont locations, exports frozen pizzas nationwide, and is franchising its restaurant concept in other states.

But profit isn't Schenk's only priority: For more than two decades he has donated thousands of his flatbreads to the poor and sick. He's also held an average of eight benefit bakes each year to raise money for those in need, from the Boy Scouts in Vermont to earthquake victims in Haiti. He also serves on the boards of several nonprofit groups and promotes grass-roots causes by staging public events at his flagship restaurant.

Although Schenk's unorthodox, off-the-cuff style sometimes stirs controversy, friends and advocates say he is an uncommonly generous man who's willing to risk his reputation to stand by his convictions.

Schenk's career perfectly illustrates the "triple bottom line" business philosophy of social entrepreneurs who place equal emphasis on people, planet, and profits, says Enid Wonnacott, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. "It really came from a very loving, big-hearted place," she says of his early work establishing American Flatbread. "He didn't think it was going to make him rich."

American Flatbread restaurants have a family-friendly atmosphere featuring a wood-fired oven and gingham-checked tablecloths – and a mission that promotes tolerance, social justice, and environmental sustainability. Each week Schenk writes a dedication for his menus that explores issues of the day, and he often ponders the teachings of ancient philosophers.

The flatbread is occasionally served with political overtones. In December 2002, for example, it was baked with salt harvested from the Dead Sea – half in Israel, half in Jordan. And in December 2009 it was topped with Afghan saffron as a gesture of support for Afghan poppy farmers trying to find alternatives to the opium trade.

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."

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.

Friends say privately they weren't surprised by the speech or the outcry it provoked, adding that Schenk occasionally rambles or oversteps the bounds of good taste when speaking in public. But they insist his commitment to his employees and community is sincere and unwavering. "I don't always agree with George, but I always appreciate him," says Amy Shollenberger, former executive director of Rural Vermont, a nonprofit farm advocacy group. "He loves everybody, wears his heart on his sleeve ... and walks his talk."

There now are 13 American Flatbread restaurants nationwide, and one in Canada, with another set to open next year in lower Manhattan. Schenk may extend the franchise even further, perhaps by licensing as many as 100 more nationwide, he says. But unlike a fast-food chain, his company won't tell franchisees exactly what they must do, aside from serve nutritious flatbread and support their own communities in whatever ways make sense to them.

"It's an umbrella of ideas rather than a prescription of certain ingredients," Schenk says.

He didn't set out to operate a franchise, Schenk is quick to add, but he feels an obligation to share ideas about how serving good food can support local farmers and promote solutions to social problems through "bottom up" change.

His community has shown it appreciates his efforts: Last summer, after hurricane Irene damaged American Flatbread's Waitsfield restaurant, about 400 neighbors cleaned up debris and pumped standing water from his office and oven room. Their efforts saved the business from further financial hardship – and humbled its grateful founder.

Some champion "the flinty independence of the American spirit," but American society actually is "profoundly interconnected," Schenk says. "You best help yourself by helping others."

• Contact American Flatbread at flatbread@americanflatbread.com or (802) 496-8856.

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