The Skinny Pancake is one of those iconic Vermont brands: unique, mission-driven, community-focused, a cool back story…and bringing a distinctly ‘Vermont flavor’ to the table.
Since its introduction via a hand-hewn food cart traversing Burlington’s Church Street mall back in 2003, the Skinny Pancake has attracted fans and fanfare across multiple locations in Vermont and New Hampshire. With the Vermont Community Loan Fund now partnering on a new round of growth financing, the restaurant group continues to blaze a trail for local food and purpose-driven businesses.
Co-founders, brothers Benjy and Jonny Adler were shaped significantly, they say, by their close-knit Connecticut upbringing and Benjy’s summers at Vermont’s Camp Keewaydin, where values and virtues were a frequent topic of discussion. The siblings developed a passion for Vermont, social justice, community and the greater good.
Crepes, also a passion, came a bit later. “One summer, a friend of my older brother who worked as a barista in Burlington said, out of the blue, ‘What Burlington needs is a crepe cart,’ and that’s where the idea came from,” Benjy recalls.
The cart, cobbled from an old sailboat trailer, would seem to have presaged the current food truck craze. It caught on fast. While still enrolled in Middlebury College, Benjy spent that summer and subsequent breaks pushing the cart and its crepes, and often engaging local musicians - “buskers” - to play along. (Benjy, a music major, would continue this interplay of food and music as the business evolved.)
By the third summer, the cart had kicked into high gear. “The whole locavore thing was re-emerging, re-energizing. My Middlebury friends helped out; we picked our own berries for the crepes and things like that. By the next year, we’d joined the Vermont Fresh Network.”
The Vermont Fresh Network provided a serious foodie endorsement, acknowledging Skinny Pancake’s culinary quality as well as their commitment to locally-sourced products in their recipes. “We’re dedicated to supporting the local food movement in Vermont,” Benjy points out. Vermont apples, honey, maple syrup, chicken, cheeses and more filled their sweet and savory crepes and kept customers coming back.
“The cart years,” as Benjy now refers to them, were challenging enough that opening an actual restaurant didn’t seem all that daunting. “Running a tiny business like the cart, you can’t outsource anything. You have to do everything. There are so many hats you have to wear, and if you’re not wearing them, those hats are getting stepped on,” he says.
When a restaurant space became available at the bottom of College Street, “we said ‘we can do that!’” Benjy says. The flagship Skinny Pancake, at Lake and College Streets in Burlington, opened in 2007, offering a farm-to-crepe, breakfast-to-lunch-to-dinner menu, sweet-to-savory, along with local brews and other beverages. Family and friends helped pitch in on the work, and the financing.
Today, the Skinny Pancake is comprised of multiple locations and ventures. A Montpelier restaurant opened in 2009, followed by the 2010 launch of the Chubby Muffin and Love Local catering and commissary in Burlington’s Old North End. In 2012, the team opened a Chubby Muffin kiosk at Burlington International Airport, installing two additional airport restaurants in 2013. Then came their UVM location, seasonal spots at the Shelburne Museum, Sugarbush and Stowe resorts and a full restaurant in Hanover, New Hampshire. Their Quechee, Vermont restaurant opens this winter.
Growing the business has fed their mission, too. “We’re always asking ourselves how can we maximize our positive social impact with the money we have to spend, not just the money we choose to donate?” A business mission mantra emerged in which “the vast majority of every dollar that comes into the Skinny Pancake needs to be spent back out,” as Benjy describes.
In pursuit of those goals, Skinny Pancake now implements long-term buying contracts with local farmers and food producers. “These are agreements with farmers for the whole summer, so they know they can count on us,” he notes. “Now, during the peak of the local food system, we’re buying about 75% of our food locally.”
A decade and a half’s experience has enabled the team to track seasonal changes and challenges. While summer brings abundance, both in local food production and business, winters can be slower. Seasonal installations at Sugarbush and Stowe ski resorts were part of a strategy to boost winter revenues. Another key strategy was connecting to the Vermont Community Loan Fund.
While considering bridge financing through slow periods, “Our consultant, Spencer Newman, told us to talk to the Loan Fund,” Benjy recalls. Spencer had identified a strong alignment of the two organizations, based on similar\missions focusing on local and social impact, and a shared commitment to Vermont’s farms and food systems.
Having worked with traditional lenders in the past, Benjy and Jonny appreciated the Loan Fund’s flexibility. “The Loan Fund was very creative in figuring out ways to work with our current situation that wouldn’t tie our hands,” Benjy says. The line of credit from the Loan Fund allows for funding as needed, and helps preserve 100 full-time and 150 part-time jobs.
“It’s evident that we both believe in using our financial resources in ways that impact multiple bottom lines,” says Benjy.
Benjy isn’t only an avid fan of the Loan Fund’s lending work; he sees critical opportunities in its investment programs, too. “The world of social impact investors is a very important resource that leads socially responsible businesses,” he says. “It’s an important counter-balance to capitalist society to be doing good, not just doing business.”
Financing was also provided to:
Owners Kevin and Laura Toohey operated Bijou Fine Chocolate in Shelburne for four years, to rave reviews. Their new venture, NU Chocolat, a chocolate manufacturer and wholesaler, will include a retail shop and café set to open by Valentine’s Day on Burlington’s highly visible Battery Street. They came to the Loan Fund to finance equipment, inventory and renovations to the new space. The loan creates nine new jobs. nuchocolat.com
West Meadow Farm Bakery, Essex Junction
When wholesale and custom orders became the major sources of revenue for longtime gluten-free baker West Meadow Farm Bakery, their old website had become a hindrance. They approached the Loan Fund to help finance development of a new website to support these new transactions. The loan preserves seven jobs. westmeadowfarmbakery.com
Cedar Sawmill of Vermont, Swanton
Cedar Sawmill of Vermont buys cedar logs from local loggers and custom mills them for businesses and consumers in the northeast. Having used VCLF financing previously to purchase equipment, CSV will now use the Loan Fund’s SPROUT program to purchase and install an electric motor, replacing a diesel motor. The owner estimates that switching from diesel to electric motors will result in significant cost savings, while providing a greener energy source, increased reliability and productivity. The loan preserves one job. cedarsawmillofvt.com
Amber Bollman Child Care, West Burke
With over a decade’s experience in the early care & learning industry, Amber Bollman opened her own registered home program in April 2018. While the home and location are well-suited for this use, the septic system required repairs, which the Loan Fund helped finance. The loan preserves care for 11 children & families and one job.
Since 1987, the Vermont Community Loan Fund has loaned over $106 million to local businesses, affordable housing developers and community-based organizations that has created or preserved 6,500 jobs; built or rehabilitated 4,100 affordable homes; created or preserved quality care for over 4,100 children and their families; and supported community organizations providing vital services to hundreds of thousands of Vermonters. investinvermont.org