“We have a lot of growth to do as a business, and my resolution is to do it in a way that is . . . respectful of our team and everyone’s quality of life.“
Before we jump into the who/what/where/why about entrepreneur and founder of The Skinny Pancake, Benjamin Adler (a.k.a. Benjy), there’s something you first need to know about his business—its mission:
“. . . to change the world by building a safer, healthier and more delicious food shed while creating everyday enjoyment that is fun and affordable.”
We repeat: “to change the world”.
No small task. But the Burlington-based biz has been dishing out positive change since 2003 with every crepe served. As an established leader in the local food movement, The Skinny Pancake took its reach even further in 2017 with The Local Motive— a six-part docuseries in collaboration with Vermont PBS, which takes a deep dive into Vermont’s food economy and is still airing today.
Our interview with Benjy was unsurprisingly dynamic—a crash course on the complexities and big hearts that go into growing a local food S.C.E.N.E. (stand by for more on the acronym), and a glimpse into the laser focused mind of the founder-owner.
This is year two of The Skinny Pancake’s partnership with Highlight. On New Year’s Eve, folks can anticipate the Burlington Waterfront to be shining bright with fireworks, bonfires and a show by Cirque de Fuego! The Skinny Pancake will be open to revelers looking to duck into a cozy setting with music by Jennifer Hartwick by night, a charitable auction led by 1% for the Planet by day, and food that’s grown, raised and loved locally.
Now, back to Benjy, the man behind the Skinny’s big mission.
Were you born in Vermont?
I don’t know if we want to get that on record. (Laughs) I was born in Connecticut. I went to Middlebury College. I have five siblings. My parents and all five siblings moved to Vermont. So we’re all in northern Vermont. Well, my sister is in Lyme, New Hampshire, which is pretty much northern Vermont. Yeah, I went to Middlebury and started The Skinny Pancake as a cart on Church Street in between semesters at college. It grew into what it is today from there.
You studied music at Middlebury. How’d you make the leap from music to the food business?
Well, my dad is an entrepreneur. We had a lemonade stand as kids, that literally, my dad gave us all shares in. So we learned that if you had a healthy business, you could make money when not working—in theory, right? So from an early age, we were learning this concept of being your own employer. Several of my siblings are founder-owners of companies as well. It seems like it’s very natural for us. I know that for a lot of people, it’s very not natural.
How did the Skinny Pancake start to take off?
Yeah, so we started the cart. There was absolutely no mission. There was no vision. There was no intention to grow it at all. It was a bit of a lark. It was just something we were doing to have fun for the summer. In the third year, we started having what we’d call pancake dreams. Some friends joined me from Middlebury College. It was the early years of the modern local food movement. Organic was being co-opted in the early 2000s by big ag. All of a sudden, the local food movement emerged as a response to that. Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma came out around then. Bill McKibben had a book right around then called Deep Economy. The Vermont Fresh Network was started right at that time as well. It was a very fertile time for the local food movement.
We started small, just picking berries on the Intervale. It was that simple. In 2006, we joined the Vermont Fresh Network. We were very idealistic. We bought a school bus, converted it to run on vegetable oil. We were touring around to fairs and festivals. Our brand was starting to gain a sense of self and personality. We started to have loyal followers, patrons. At that same time, we had started to really outgrow the way we were operating, which was in a rental apartment.
At that point, we needed a commercial kitchen. Actually, in 2006, we rented space in Nectar’s kitchen. They have a nice kitchen, but it didn’t take long for them to realize, it wasn’t a good deal for them to have someone else in their space. So they were cool and polite and supportive enough to let us finish out the season, and then they let us know that they would not be renewing. Once we’d had a taste for a commercial kitchen, there really was no going back. So, we started looking around for a kitchen and found what is now our flagship location on the Burlington waterfront. The dining room was an afterthought. It was like, “Well, we may as well have some chairs out here.” We had very modest expectations as to how much business we would do and opened the doors and we were floored by demand. It became this thing where we were racing to keep up. That first year, we did about four times the business we thought we were going to do and said, “Okay, well, it seems like we’re onto something here.” That was a big leap for us.
We had no overhead, we were very scrappy, we saved all our money. We plowed it into opening a location two years later in Montpelier. Thankfully, we had the good judgment to keep that space very small, because operating two locations is much like having two children, as I understand it, it’s really … two is more than twice one. It’s a lot of additional complications. You can no longer be an owner-operator, physically in the space at all times. We managed through that. But we were so resource-poor, operating all the stuff out of this 1,200 square foot kitchen, and still with the cart and the festival tour. So we ended up buying this building over here out of foreclosure, the Chubby Muffin.
Great branding on all fronts, by the way.
Thanks. The Chubby Muffin gave us an offsite commissary space, but it really proved to be a tail that wagged the dog, because it was very expensive in terms of overhead relative to the size of our business at the time. Thankfully, that led us to look around for opportunity and right around then, the airport put out this RFP, a request for proposal. We went up against Bruegger’s Bagels and Dunkin’ Donuts. It was like a Samson and Goliath situation.
Do you think it helped that you were the local underdog?
The only reason we were even entertaining submitting a proposal was that there was a big emphasis in the RFP on local food. Otherwise, we would have just been like, “Well, that’s going to some corporation.” We put everything we could into it, like really obsessed over it. As it turns out, Bruegger’s Bagels and Dunkin’ Donuts, just took a file off their shelf and put it on the RFP desk. So we ended up outbidding them substantially. Today we do more than 50% more business than we thought we were going to do in the bid. So that was really catalytic for us because the airport’s obviously a very prominent location and it’s a pretty significant amount of business. The company doubled in size overnight. It gave us the critical mass to hire new people. We could have a dedicated executive chef, for example at that point.
The airport’s also sort of an institutional level blessing. All of a sudden, the University of Vermont said, “Well if you’re good enough for the airport, you’re good enough for us. We can trust you.” They invited us to run an operation there. Then Sugarbush and Stowe had the very same reaction. We saw this domino of growth with institutions. Since then, we’ve had a few more openings, and we’ve really focused on working on our foundation systems, SOPs, digital platforms to do better with what we have. We are about to grow a lot faster.
We’ll be working mostly on growing out of state.
The value placed on local food is now very entrenched even in big institutions here in Vermont. Do you think your story could have happened anywhere else?
Right. The local food scene in Vermont and the local food culture in Vermont is all I know. So it’s the only place we’ve ever really been. But by all accounts, it is remarkable. One of the surprise themes that emerged from the Local Motive project was the importance of passion, as a catalytic change agent. It’s not necessarily money. It’s not even intelligence. It’s just passion. Passion for building a local food economy has created this very deep, sophisticated, mature network of people and institutions and systems to further cultivate the local food scene. So yes, the fact that the University of Vermont decided they wanted a local food-oriented food service provider and challenged Sodexo to do that, as I understand it, and part of how they, Sodexo, got there was to invite in businesses that were already doing that, and that was a large part of why we were invited in there.
How do you think Skinny Pancake’s local mission is going to translate when you expand out of state?
Sure. Look, wherever we go, the reason we are growing is because of our mission. There’s plenty of business logic, but the team that leads this company is in it for the mission. The mission logic for growth is very powerful. There are lots of non-profits supporting the local food movement. There are farms working on creating supply. It is critical that there are demand-side change agents to help build the local food movement. That’s what we are. We create demand by sourcing our food intentionally and creating this institutional level of commitment to farmers. So we can say, “Look, we’ll buy 50 pounds of mesclun or salad mix a week from you.” And they can rely on that without needing to go to the farmers’ market.
Then hopefully there’s a second level of influence that happens by introducing the idea to the consumer, so they increase their appetite for local food consumption. Additionally, by influencing other restaurant groups who see what we’re doing and see that it can be done and that it is good marketing and branding. By influencing distributors, the larger we are, the more we buy. We do work with Broadline Distributors. The more leverage we have with them, the more they listen. And they do. They listen.
When we go to a new community outside of Vermont, we work in concentric circles. Ultimately, our food system is a regional food system. Just as local food emerged out of the organic movement, as big ag co-opted the meaning of organic, when understanding what’s behind sourcing food locally, we talk about the food S.C.E.N.E. This acronym stands for Security, Community, Environment, Nutrition, and Economy. Those are the five value propositions for why you’d want to source locally.
Ultimately, not everything you source locally is going to be sustainable. We have had examples of situations where we said, “You know what? You may be local, and that’s great that the money’s going back into the local food economy, but what you’re doing is not sustainable. It’s not environmentally responsible, and we’re not going to source from you.” So there are times when the value propositions will compete with each other. Do we buy locally to keep the food in the local economy? Or do we buy sustainably? In the end, sustainability, what’s going on with climate change, takes primacy.
What’s been the best part of this last year for you and your work community?
Tough question. I think we’ve had a really positive year of morale at The Skinny Pancake, at least on a leadership and administrative level. We’ve moved into this office from a tired three-bedroom apartment. That was a big change. But the anticipation around our growth and the impact it has is very energizing. Because most of us in the leadership here are really driven by the mission. The mission is endless.
The thought that we’re really grabbing the bull by the horns in terms of using this capitalist mechanism to effect positive change, and not just doing it locally, and preaching to the choir in a way that’s patting ourselves on the back . . . it’s good. It’s good that we’re doing it. Taking that fight to the front lines, and pushing out into New England, that has been, for me, very inspiring.
And the flip side of that, what do you see has been some of your biggest challenges?
Well, we have historically the lowest unemployment rate in the state, ever, currently. It is half of the national unemployment rate, which is the lowest it’s been nationally in 50 years, or something like that. The county is another 20% lower than the state average. Just keeping a team together, all the teams together for all the outlets, has been challenging. We’re definitely a glass-is-half-full, what-is-the-silver-lining type of folks. What this has resulted in is higher wages and better working conditions for employees. While that may be challenging to the bottom line, it’s really important for the city, the state, the country, to have upward mobility in the middle class. On the whole, it’s a good thing, but it’s been hard. The bottom can fall out really quickly on a team. But it’s held us accountable to really be good employers. We always want to be good employers, but the labor situation is challenging.
I mean, I think the other thing that’s challenging is, Vermont is a bootstrapped environment. You hear about these deals, just enormous amounts of money flying back and forth. . . There’s a ten-unit restaurant chain called By CHLOE that I just learned about. It’s a vegan burger joint, of sorts. Yeah, I just walked into one for the first time. I thought it was really well put together, and I was like, “What’s this place?” They got $31 million in funding! I can’t even imagine what their valuation was, based on that. Trying to grow out of the Vermont food scene and operate a bigger business, and wrestling with the financial implications of that, for me, has been challenging.
Can you describe your community in Vermont?
Sure. I think my personal community is here in Burlington. It is one-part food service and farming and food systems. Then it’s one-part arts and culture. It’s like in all cases, just big hearts. Big hearts. The folks at Lee Anderson and the team at the Radio Bean, Travis Marcotte and the team down at the Intervale, the farmers we work with down there, the other food entrepreneurs, some of who are coming up from below, just getting their start, and others that have retired, and there’s this pay-it-forward culture that is, it’s just so heartwarming, and apparently not the way the rest of the world functions. But people reach out to me, and ask, “Hey, how does this work?” And I’m like, “Let’s sit down and open up the books.” Likewise, I reach out to people who have done it, and say, “Can you help me?” And the door is wide open. That theme of generosity is central to the way I’ve always known it to be here.
Lovely. I get that. What’s your resolution for the coming year looking at the big picture for The Skinny Pancake and your work?
We have a lot of growth to do as a business, and my resolution is to do it in a way that is . . . what’s the word I’m looking for . . . respectful of our team and everyone’s quality of life. Because it’s very easy to grow in a way that just throws everyone under the bus. It’s like every year’s resolution, but in terms of that growth, that we’re going to stay true to our mission, and not run out of money.
Doesn’t sound like you will. Sounds like you’re doing great.
Oh, no. Did I leave that part out? We are, like every business very tight. We have to perform well. We can’t let it slip. We are not flush with cash. That’s, I think, an important thing to talk about openly. Because people just assume because you see all these storefronts . . . It’s not like that. The money we are using to fund our growth is by selling equity and taking on debt.
The hard reality of business.
Well, thank you. We will continue to support Skinny Pancake forever. We love it.