Airport Flies Toward Local
Burlington International will soon have a local foods restaurant—actually, three of them
Written onOctober 25 , 2012
In January 2013, The Skinny Pancake will open what is likely to be the first-ever local foods restaurant in an American airport. In fact, we’re opening three of them at the Burlington International Airport (BTV): a Skinny Pancake in each of the two post-security terminals and a Chubby Muffin kiosk across from the check-in counters on the first floor.
For those of you who don’t know us, The Skinny Pancake and Chubby Muffin are sister-concept restaurants in Burlington and Montpelier with a mission to “change the world by building a safer, healthier, more delicious foodshed while creating everyday enjoyment that is fun and affordable.” We’re excited to be bringing our hyper-local food philosophy and buying practices to BTV.
Menus at our airport locations will feature grab-n-go sandwiches and snacks, as well as plated sit-down meals featuring our core product: hearty crepes made with local ingredients. We’ll also offer a bar with espresso, tea, and a full selection of beers, wines and spirits. All of our meats and cheeses will be local year-round, our veggies will be local seasonally, and local alcohol options will be prominently featured. At a bare minimum, we will ensure that at least 50 percent of our purchasing goes to local raw and value-added products, although we certainly expect to beat that number.
In addition, the walls of each location will be adorned with images of our farmers and a map of our local foodshed. We will proudly celebrate the ripe and sophisticated local food movement here in Vermont and educate travelers about the importance of buying local. While there are local food enthusiasts pushing the envelope at a few other airports—a local foods pizzeria at the Martha’s Vineyard airport, an aeroponic vegetable garden at Chicago O’Hare—no airport eateries appear to have “gone local” to this degree.
For a motley crew of post-collegiate bohemians, teaming up with a formal institution like BTV is an unlikely twist in a decade-long tale full of surprises. As our company philosophy has evolved from survival to success defined by multiple bottom lines, our growth is increasingly driven by purpose over profit, and the BTV project fits this intention like a glove.
The Skinny Pancake was born as a fledgling street cart on the streets of Burlington during the baking-hot summer of 2003. She had a room in our rental apartment, packed with dry goods and storage racks. We shared the kitchen with her and, it seemed, cleaned up after her constantly. Indeed, she was a colicky baby. Working at a rate immeasurably below minimum wage, we lived and breathed “The Pancake.” Surely, somewhere in the venerable halls of the School of Hard Knocks, there hangs a plaque commemorating those early years. At the time, our focus was on making it work, not on changing the world.
As “The Skinny” developed from an infant into a toddler, a distinct personality emerged: fun, conscientious, purposeful, creative on the outside, determined within. We bought a bus, converted it to run on vegetable oil and adventured to fairs and festivals. In 2006, we became the first food cart to join the Vermont Fresh Network. As our little brand gained a good reputation and developed reliable revenues, we looked to our idols—Ben & Jerry’s, American Flatbread, Patagonia—and with outsized confidence thought, “If they can do it, so can we.”
Fast forwarding five years, The Skinny Pancake has now grown into a young adult, with bricks-and-mortar locations on Burlington’s waterfront, the Old North End, and in downtown Montpelier. We also operate an airstream trailer in “vendor ally” at UVM, our original cart on Church Street is humming along, and our forays into fairs and festivals have led to “Have Your Cake Catering,” which plans appearances at everything from weddings to corporate luncheons to county fairs. At our peak this summer, we will have more than 80 employees.
Most importantly, after those early years of just struggling to survive, our social mission has grown to become the driving force behind our business. At its core is a deep-seated belief in the power of conscientious capitalism. We demonstrate the efficacy of this philosophy daily through the persistent act of buying local. In our last annual audit, we found that 68.6 percent of all food and beverage purchases went to local raw and value-added products. In other words, we spend over $500,000 annually within the local economy. And ultimately, the vast majority of all the revenues we take in go right back out the door (and very quickly, I might add). Whereas The Skinny Pancake could carelessly purchase food from major distributors and ship all of that cash out of state, we carefully direct our spending with the intention of having a positive impact on Vermont farms, businesses, and communities. We believe our spending habits will “improve the view of the food S.C.E.N.E.” (Security, Community, Economy, Nutrition, Environment).
Keeping local food consistently available and affordable has required us to develop additional infrastructure and unique skills. We now have a “local food systems coordinator” (Jeremy Silansky) who works directly with farmers. Each winter, Jeremy forecasts our demand for the following year and contracts directly with farmers for the needed supply. Consequently, the farmers have a reliable source of income and we get competitive pricing. And wherever possible, we buy bumper crops during harvest season; farmers avoid spoilage and we get a good deal. These techniques require a knowledgeable staff and a facility capable of receiving, processing, and storing produce for the late fall, winter and spring.
In addition to our approach of “consumer power on a corporate level,” last fall we joined “1 percent for the Planet,” becoming the largest business in Vermont to take the pledge to donate 1% of all revenues to environmental nonprofits. With margins that are already a tad threadbare, this choice may strike people as misguided. In fact, this counter-intuitive commitment falls right in line with our philosophy. As Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chuinard explains, “Every time I’ve done the right thing for the environment I’ve made a profit.” In essence, we believe that in doing good, we will do good business. The goodwill we gain for having taken this pledge is demonstrable and measurable. Rather than sap us of our profits, it has strengthened our revenues and reputation.
Enter the Burlington International Airport. In the winter of 2012, BTV issued a 70-page “Request For Proposal” to take over and manage the food service there. The RFP emphasized “local food sources and Vermont-made products.” As we took in this behemoth of an RFP, we considered the landscape: in Burlington, we have extraordinary examples of local food innovation from impressive institutions including the Intervale, Fletcher Allen hospital system, and the Onion River Co-op (City Market). Their deep commitment to using local foods is built on decades of developing a remarkable network of farmers and food producers, local distributors, nonprofits, restaurants, co-ops, community awareness, and demand. We reasoned that if they can “go local” thanks to this network, then BTV could, too.
Vermont’s largest airport boasts 650,000 enplanements annually, including locals traveling abroad, tourists visiting Vermont, and business travelers. With spending at similarly sized airports averaging $3.48 per departing passenger, we know we can help redirect hundreds of thousands of dollars back into the local food economy. Furthermore, we have a genuine opportunity to promote Vermont’s agricultural and working landscape, help educate travelers, and build on Vermont’s momentum as a hotbed of local food innovation. Successfully delivering local foods en masse to consumers at BTV will send a powerful message that local food need not be relegated to the realm of indulgence and luxury—it can be part of our everyday lives. Or, as we say here at the ‘Cake, “localvore is not haute-couture!”
A decade ago, it would have been beyond our wildest dreams to have imagined collaborating with an airport on a localvore food service project. Now, it is an impending reality. We thoroughly understand that we will be the first and last impression of Vermont for many travelers, which is a great privilege and an even greater responsibility to everyone who lives in and loves our state. We hope to send a message beyond the borders of this back-to-the-land mecca: local food can be accessible, affordable, and fun. We will strive to make every Vermonter proud, every traveler welcomed, and everyone aware of the power of place in the food we eat.
So please wish us luck, and next year when you visit the airport, say hello!