Made in Vermont

In the small state, specialty foods are big business

June 15, 2005|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

WAITSFIELD, Vt. -- At what he calls "the fringe of the empire," George Schenk strips bark from a stack of sugar-maple saplings. He sits outside the tiny shed on the Lareau Farm from which he runs American Flatbread, a multimillion-dollar company that crafts frozen premium pizzas for retailers around the country.

The saplings will become scaffolding for wigwams that Schenk and his employees plan to erect for the 20th-anniversary celebration of the company he founded with a single pizza made in a backyard oven. It was an unpretentious start, like so many others in Vermont's thriving food industry.

Today, another wood-fired oven, constructed of local fieldstone and clay, bakes 1,200 handmade pizzas daily -- except on weekends, when American Flatbread becomes a restaurant and diners gather around the glowing hearth. A second bakery / restaurant operates in Middlebury, Vt., and several franchise American Flatbread restaurants have opened in the Northeast and in California.

Schenk and his staff expect 3,000 party guests to feast on organic pizza and share his vision of food as a sacrament that connects consumers to the natural world and all humanity.

"We who make food for others hold a very important public trust," says Schenk, who wears Simple shoes, a natty navy-blue fleece vest and blue jeans, and adroitly wields a Coghlan's camp knife as he speaks.

A former biologist, Schenk, 52, has purposefully built American Flatbread to mesh with his own evolving philosophy. His vision also reflects Vermont's international reputation as a source of wholesome, thoughtfully prepared "authentic" food.

From barbecue and tomato sauce to chocolate truffles and "Maple Passions Body Syrup," that reputation could easily prompt consumers to mistake the Green Mountain State for the Specialty Food State.

Since the mid-1980s, when a handful of Vermont products were first featured at a New York City Fancy Foods Show, the former republic has, in a fashion true to its self-reliant nature, become its own distinctive brand.

"By buying into the business, [a customer] is buying into the lifestyle choice at the same time," says Cathy Bacon, president of the Vermont Specialty Food Association and creator of a line of cheese spreads, infused maple syrups and pancake mixes named for her family's Hillside Lane Farm in Randolph.

King Arthur Flour, based in Vermont, sells well in California, where consumers "feel the Vermont seal shows quality and [means an] all-natural, healthy product," says spokesman Dave Anderson.

Twenty years ago, with support from then-Gov. Madeleine Kunin and a marketing visionary named Jerome Kelley, Vermont first promoted its natural essence in bottles of maple syrup, jars of jam and tins of pate. The state became a model for similar efforts around the nation.

"We were sort of the first out of the gate in marketing a product that is from a region that has this cachet," says Jennifer Grahovac, a marketing specialist with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. "When you put Vermont on a product, it means something to consumers."

Vermont has come to mean far more than maple syrup, apple cider and cheddar cheese. In their kitchens, hundreds of aspiring business owners have concocted dreams the size of Ben & Jerry triple scoops, along with recipes for salsa, jam, pancake mix, granola, pasta, sauce and salad dressing.

"We have a lot of baby companies with Grandma's recipes from years and years ago" who hope to make it big, says Grahovac, noting that minimal state regulations help to fuel those dreams.

Products made by companies such as the Putney Pasta Co., Vermont Butter & Cheese Co., Lake Champlain Chocolates and Rhino Foods ice-cream novelties, have become commonplace in specialty stores, mainstream supermarkets and on the Web.

Broadening appeal

More traditional businesses have retooled their identities for wider marketing opportunities. Bove's Restaurant, a Burlington, Vt. mainstay, has become, for example, "Bove's of Vermont," a national purveyor of gourmet pasta sauce.

Franklin Foods, a dairy company started in 1899, revamped its image with items such as All Season's Kitchen Chipotle Chile Salsa Cream Cheese and a perky credo: "Reinventing Cream Cheese!"

Some of those early "baby companies" have grown into corporate giants. Although it remains headquartered in a South Burlington industrial park, Ben & Jerry's Homemade is now owned by multinational Unilever. Originally located in a single cafe, Waterbury's Green Mountain Coffee Roasters is publicly traded and last year tallied more than $137 million in sales.

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