Bread Head

George Schenk's American Flatbread is food for the body and soul

by Craig Bailey

Photos: Jeff Clarke

Nobody said quality comes easy. Certainly not George Schenk. Whether it's trekking into the woods on foot to fetch spring water for his recipes -- or building a temporary, earthen oven to cater a one-day private function -- the proprietor of American Flatbread quietly prides himself on going the distance.

For Schenk, the profit motive seems to take a back seat to what this 46-year-old former biologist holds in higher regard: nutrition, community, and respect for the environment. Since he started the business in the mid '80s by using Tucker Hill Lodge as a culinary incubator space, American Flatbread has grown to include a wholesale operation that supplies the super premium pizza market with 4,000 frozen breads in three topping varieties a week. Schenk's restaurant, which he relocated to Lareau Farm Country Inn of Waitsfield seven years ago, routinely serves 200 to 300 people a night every Friday and Saturday.

George Schenk

George Schenk founded American Flatbread in Waitsfield on personal philosophies of food and community. "Food intimately affects the quality and character of our lives," he says. "Too often food is seen principally as a vehicle for profit, rather than in its historic sense as a giver of nutrition."

Still, Schenk makes time for projects like Organic Food for Public Schools, an initiative he created to raise the quality of foods in area schools; benefit bakes to support non-profit organizations; and school field trips that give children hands-on experience with all-natural baking.

"We don't do things the hard way for the hard way's sake," he says, unless the extra effort is reflected in the product. Apparently it is: American Flatbread has been lauded by Washingtonian, Vermont Magazine and The New York Times, which dubbed it "the best frozen pizza that money can buy" in 1991.

"That does not overly surprise me," offers Schenk. "We put an enormous amount of care into making the breads." American Flatbread is made with all-natural, mostly organic ingredients; the company uses local ingredients whenever possible. Schenk says, "Lots of times the agricultural sector will respond to fill market niches." American Flatbread uses asiago, a variety of Parmesan cheese that's made at Blythedale Farm in East Corinth at Schenk's request.

Water for the dough comes from a spring a third of a mile into the woods behind the inn. "I use the water to make the flatbreads for the restaurant, but we don't do that for the wholesale breads," Schenk says. "Otherwise I wouldn't do anything else except carry water." He makes the trip twice a week, carrying nine gallons each time. "It's impossible to make truly great bread from compromised water," he offers as an explanation. Aside from fewer topping varieties for the frozen flatbreads -- "We really have to design those topping combinations to foods that we can get year-round," explains Schenk -- the water source is the only difference between the breads that are served in the restaurant and those stocked in supermarket freezer cases, mostly along the Boston to Washington corridor.

The tomato sauce that tops the flatbread is slow cooked in an iron cauldron over a wood fire. After assembly, the bread and toppings are flash cooked in a wood-fired, earthen oven rendering the outside crisp but leaving the inside chewy.

Schenk's fascination with cooking with fire began in childhood. Growing up in Hamden, Conn., his early memories included trips to East Charleston, Vt., where he watched his grandmother cook with a woodfire stove. His first hands-on experiences were cooking as a Boy Scout on camping expeditions. All the while he was developing an appreciation for pizza cooked in coal-fired, brick ovens at New Haven restaurants.

With an undergraduate degree in biology earned from Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., in 1974, Schenk went on to study zoology at Syracuse University, before becoming a research biologist. He spent several years with the U.S. Forest Service in Connecticut and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources before he realized he needed a change.

His experience developing photos for a friend's book -- "Total Golf," published by Doubleday in 1980 -- was enough to prompt a move to Vermont to work as a photographer at Sugarbush. "I was sort of here to clear out my head," he says of his planned four-month stay. "I was making about $30 a week. I was starving," he recalls, "so I got a job at night washing dishes."

Washing dishes at Sam Rupert's on the Sugarbush Access Road in Warren soon evolved into a cooking apprenticeship. "I'd bring in food that I had grown myself -- that I had harvested that morning -- and then prepare it for that evening's dishes," Schenk says. "I found that especially to be remarkably fulfilling." Early in his tenure at the restaurant he met a waitress: George Chapel shared Schenk's first name and would soon share his second. Before long it was obvious that the Green Mountains were Schenk's new, long-term home.

George Schenk

"It's not possible to make truly great bread from compromised water," according to George Schenk. He carries water from a natural spring behind Lareau Farm Country Inn twice a week.

American Flatbread was begun in June 1985, when Schenk built a small oven in his backyard to prepare a dinner party for friends "who had done a lot for my education in food."

With no door on the oven, Schenk feared drafts would prevent his bread from cooking properly. "So instead of baking a round, thick loaf of bread, I stretched it out making a thin, flat loaf," he says, "and as soon as you roll a flat piece of dough, at least for me, it's hard not to embellish it with something. So I brushed it with a little bit of garlic oil, sprinkled a little hard cheese on it -- and I had this herb garden, so I spread some herbs on it, popped it in the oven, and it was very special. That was really how Flatbread was born."

By this time, Schenk had been working as an appetizer chef at Tucker Hill Lodge in Waitsfield for a year. In 1987, he spent a month building a large version of his oven on an outside patio at Tucker Hill and began offering his flatbread baked from his original recipes to patrons one night a week, earning a commission for each bread he sold. The inexpensive fare served to patrons in an underutilized, downstairs lounge provided a nice complement to the more expensive fine dining the lodge offered upstairs. One night turned to two, which turned to three, and eventually flatbread was baking at Tucker Hill -- Monday through Friday.

"It's a miracle really that we got off the ground as well as we did, given the fact we had arguably some of the worst nights of the week to function," says Schenk, adding that in the Mad River Valley, weekends are when restaurants flourish. All along Schenk continued to build ovens on location for wedding receptions and private parties. A wigwam Schenk and 16 volunteers built over the Tucker Hill oven in 1988 allowed the business to function through the winter.

Before long, flatbread was monopolizing Schenk's time at Tucker Hill. By '89 he and Chris Mintz, a flatbread fan who had come on board the previous year as Schenk's partner, began looking into selling their product wholesale. The first store they approached was Mehuron's Supermarket in Waitsfield.

"We moved in excess of 200 pies the first week out of a little, 6-foot-square freezer," says owner Tom Mehuron, still surprised at the quick turnaround. "He's got a pretty deep commitment to using as many local, fresh, organic products as possible, and trying to give back to his community," he says of Schenk, "which gave me another reason to want to support him." Mehuron's Supermarket continues to stock American Flatbread.

"The wholesale production was an important catalyst for change in our location," says Schenk. "It was pretty obvious by the end of 1990 that if we were going to grow that aspect of the business that we were going to have to find another home. The operative word at Tucker Hill Lodge is 'hill,' and there wasn't a logical place to expand the building."

Staff

American Flatbread's wholesale bakery and restaurant use the same space. Wholesale breads are baked Monday through Thursday, before workers move tables and chairs into the space for Friday and Saturday nights' restaurant patrons.

An old barn at Lareau Farm Country Inn seemed the perfect place to lease for wholesale operations, while continuing the restaurant set-up at Tucker Hill. "We limped along in that format from the winter of late 1991 until May of '92," says Schenk. Between the two locations and his young family -- daughter Hanna is now 12; son Willis is 7 -- "I felt like I had been racing around like a wild man," says Schenk, "and that was pretty unfulfilling."

When a frost heave destroyed his oven at Tucker Hill in the spring of 1992, Schenk moved the restaurant business over to Lareau Farm. Monday through Thursday the wholesale bakery works the oven double shifts from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., driving 70 percent of the company's more than $1 million in annual revenues. Thursday evenings workers roll out the factory equipment and set up tables and chairs in the space to greet patrons Friday and Saturday nights.

"This has been a tremendous blessing in disguise for us to consolidate the business," Schenk says. "It's been helpful to me in terms of my psychological well-being; it's easier to manage and run the business under one roof; and it's allowed us to grow."

Susan Easley, owner of Lareau Farm Country Inn, feels American Flatbread complements her business. "My guests love it," she says. The inn serves breakfast every morning, often serves dinner, and hosts many weddings. "Many people who have come here for flatbread have decided to have their wedding here," she says. "We often work together on parties." Furthermore, she says with the constant turnaround of guests, an innkeeper's life is ironically lonely. "It's nice to have neighbors," she says. "George is a great guy."

Oven

The woodfire oven at American Flatbread was built by George Schenk and former partner Chris Mintz. Schenk's original design was based on earthen ovens of Quebec; used 31,000 pounds of rock, sand and clay; and heats to 800 degrees.

Since Mintz left American Flatbread and moved to Colorado a couple of years ago, Schenk has been sole owner. To fill the void, Schenk turned to consultant Robin Morris to help with money matters, Schenk's admitted weak point. "He's done a really good job of building a team," according to Kevin Cunningham, sales account coordinator at Vermont's Finest Distributors, a subsidiary of Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. in Waterbury. It distributes American Flatbread to wholesale accounts in Vermont, like Hannaford's and Grand Union. "He's still kept his values," says Cunningham, "and I think that's the hardest thing in the world."

Resembling a cross between Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka and a mild mannered, khaki-clad Australian adventurer, Schenk takes the short walk from the tiny shack/office he shares with several members of his management team to the restaurant. On this humid Tuesday afternoon in late July, the wholesale operation dominates the floor. The 800-degree oven has pumped the temperature in the bakery to an uncomfortable level as a small group of Schenk's approximately 30 employees go about their work. In three days the space will barely be recognizable when tables and chairs replace stacks of boxes and rolling carts after it's converted into a 75-seat restaurant. Hand-painted banners and signs fill nearly every wall -- an archive of Schenk's past "dedications," weekly musing on notions and concepts as varied as children, country and bear habitat, which he writes and inserts in the menu.

As the company's grown, Schenk has taken on many more administrative tasks, but he makes an effort to lead a varied work life. His health depends on it: He suffered a repetitive motion injury in his shoulder a couple of years ago from shuffling so many flatbreads in and out of his oven. Nonetheless, patrons can see him at the oven one night of the week. Time spent in the garden -- the company grows lettuce and parsley for its menu -- provides a nice balance to hours spent at his desk.

In September, American Flatbread will roll out a new wholesale box design, along with a 9-inch format to supplement its 12-inch flatbreads. Schenk says, "This will allow us to compete more successfully, especially with the out-of-state markets." A franchise restaurant in Amesbury, Mass., which has been operating nearly two years, might provide the model for American Flatbread's future. "It'd be a great way to strengthen the financial base of the company," says Schenk. "Even more important, it becomes a logical way for us to expand the reach of the philosophy and the reach of the food."