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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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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.

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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.

"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.

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