02/11/2010

By Lisa Loomis

American Flatbread, Waitsfield, has licensed the production, marketing and sales of its frozen flatbread business to Rustic Crust in Pittsfield, New Hampshire.

Rustic Crust, a purveyor of natural and organic pizza crusts, will be using the same recipes and baking techniques that had been used to bake some 6,400 frozen flatbreads each week at the Lareau Farm Inn location. The Lareau Farm Inn barns have hosted American Flatbread frozen production since 1991 and its weekend restaurant business since 1992.

"It was really hard, letting go of what had become my identity and my hopes and dreams for 20 years. But with that comes recognizing that there will be new hopes and new dreams."
--George Schenk on moving frozen flatbread production to New Hampshire.

There have been 18 employees working two shifts to bake the weekly allotment of frozen flatbreads. Company founder and owner George Schenk said every effort would be made to re-absorb those employees into other areas of the company but said the most distressing part of this change was that were would be some loss of jobs -- how many he could not say.

PAINFUL PART

"We're going to create new job descriptions, work with and retain as many employees as possible by growing other parts of the business. But our best projection is that there will be some loss of jobs and that is the most painful part of this process," he said.

Schenk announced the change this week and sat down for an interview about his reasoning, the impact of the change and what happens next in Waitsfield at the Lareau Farm Inn where the commercial frozen flatbread business had been based.

"The frozen division of the company has been a challenge for several years now. The wholesale business took up an enormous amount of management time and company resources. This change frees up those resources and allows us to redirect our efforts closer to home. We knew we had to do something. We looked at our strengths and weaknesses as an organization and realized we were much better in the hospitality arena," Schenk said.

DISCOMFORT

With his management team, he said he looked at the company's franchise business and found it strong and worth retaining. The company currently has a half a dozen franchise businesses throughout the country.

Compounding the frozen flatbread business model, which Schenk said just wasn't working, was his own discomfort with the environmental impact of baking frozen breads in Waitsfield and shipping them all over the country.

"I had become increasingly less comfortable with the carbon footprint associated with distributing our product halfway across the country. For us, part of this change is about relocalizing the business and putting the frozen brand into the hands of a capable company," he said.

"They're committed to making flatbread as well as we've made it, and to making it better. They will be using only high-quality ingredients and building a new wood-fired oven to bake them in. They have the experience and resources to get the product further into the market," he continued.

AS MUCH WRONG AS RIGHT

Schenk said that part of the process of re-examining how he was doing business was understanding that his product -- as good as it is -- had as much wrong with it as it did what was right.

"We talk ad nauseum about the benefits of local this and regional that and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the frozen product represented an inconsistency in our values as a company," he said.

This new business model, Schenk said, is in many ways much closer to where the business began -- a small bakery selling frozen flatbreads to its neighbors.

CAUGHT UP IN THE STEREOTYPE

"That's where we're returning. We got caught up in a lot of stereotypes of the American dream of getting bigger and bigger and imagining national distribution," he said.

"This recession, in particular the spike in energy prices of 2008, heightened our awareness of the impact that our fossil fuel had. That caused us to reconsider our aspirations. While we regret the loss of some of the jobs, this is an opportunity for us to do better work and to be more focused on an enormously important aspect of American food," he explained.

Asked whether it was ironic that the troubling carbon footprint aspect of the business was leaving Waitsfield but continuing in New Hampshire, Schenk said that he considered letting that frozen flatbread brand fade away and die but said ultimately that seemed disrespectful to the hard work of so many who created it.

HOW WE FEED OURSELVES

"There are no easy answers to the questions about how we feed ourselves in this country. In the end it was a judgment of what was best to do. I felt as though with this choice, we have also conserved an asset or resource of the company that could be reinvested to create a stronger company," Schenk said.

As for what happens at the Lareau Farm, Schenk said he hoped to expand the nights that the restaurant is open and said he would continue selling a special form of the frozen flatbreads on a smaller scale to Vermont schools, hospitals and possibly prisons.

"That's the area where we're going to be looking at developing the business -- bringing it closer to home. We'll continue to have our gardens and expand our food resources at the Lareau Farm for local veggies and meats. Last year we raised 14 meat chickens to see how it worked. Maybe this year we'll raise 100 or more," he said.

STARTED IN 1985

Schenk said the Middlebury flatbread restaurant would continue as a restaurant and would continue to make the tomato sauce for both restaurants using ingredients sourced in Addison County.

Schenk, 57, started American Flatbread 25 years ago in June 1985. In 1984 he had started working as an appetizer chef at Tucker Hill Lodge and then started writing the appetizer menu in late 1984. In June 1985, as part of writing those menus, he developed the concept of the stone oven baked bread that became American Flatbread.

He built his first oven at Tucker Hill in 1987, after building a trial oven at his home in Warren in 1985. He built field ovens for Tucker Hill catered events in 1985 and 1986. He left Tucker Hill in 1991 to create the wholesale production facility at the Lareau Farm but planned to keep the restaurant business at Tucker Hill. When the oven at Tucker Hill collapsed in the spring of 1992 he consolidated operations at the Lareau Farm Inn.

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