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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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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."

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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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