Skinny Pancake Tries to Rely on Local Farms, Products

  • Dan Vercruysse looks for an ingredient in the cooler at The Skinny Pancake in Hanover, N.H., Thursday, July 28, 2016. Vercruysse said he sought employment at the restaurant partly because of its philosophy of using local sources for its food. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dan Vercruysse spins out a crepe at the Skinny Pancake in Hanover, N.H., Thursday, July 28, 2016. The restaurant uses King Arthur Flour because it is a local business, though the wheat in King Arthur Flour is not grown locally. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Skinny Pancake executive chef Keith Lada, right, talks with Jason Farina, head chef for the Hanover restaurant during a weekly visit in Hanover, N.H. Thursday, July 28, 2016. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Krystal Cheney places fillings on a crepe in the kitchen of The Skinny Pancake in Hanover, N.H. Thursday, July 28, 2016. The restaurant aims to source 70 percent of its food items from within a 250 mile radius. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, August 13, 2016

Hanover — Local food was not on Lyme resident Brigette Cameron’s mind when she chose to have breakfast at The Skinny Pancake one weekday morning in early August.

She walked in the door while looking for a place near her parents’ Hanover hotel where she might find something her children would eat. Cameron said she likes going to Lou’s Restaurant and Bakery for breakfast, but the more open layout of Skinny Pancake’s dining area works better for her young children.

“I came here for the convenience,” she said. “I kind of thought it was just a chain.”

Once inside, Cameron said the restaurant’s emphasis on local foods was nice.

Putting local food in front of people who might not otherwise find it affordable or convenient is part of the Burlington-based chain’s philosophy.

While serving locally grown products is not new to the Upper Valley’s restaurant scene, local purchasing is a central part of Skinny Pancake’s stated purpose. Like many Vermont businesses, the restaurant aims to build a local food economy as it turns a profit for its owners. It adds a degree of difficulty to opening a restaurant.

“It’s capitalism with a soul,” said Jason Farina, the kitchen manager at Skinny Pancake’s Hanover restaurant, which opened in May.

The Skinny Pancake has locations in downtown Montpelier, Burlington, the Burlington International Airport, the University of Vermont and Sugarbush Resort in Warren, Vt. The company also operates a catering business, Have Your Cake Catering, and The Chubby Muffin, a Burlington coffee shop and bakery.

The Hanover restaurant is the chain’s first outside Vermont and the first in the Upper Valley, which has necessitated a search for new food suppliers.

Part of Farina’s job is to source ingredients from farms located near Hanover.

What “near” means is a bit of a moving target, said the restaurant’s co-owner and co-founder Jonny Adler. There is no formal certification process for the term “local,” so The Skinny Pancake strives to be as open about its purchasing decisions as possible, he said.

If there is an industry standard, that would be sourcing ingredients from within 100 miles of the restaurant, he said. But, ideally, Hanover ingredients are sourced from growers in the Upper Valley, with the restaurant widening its search as necessary to find the desired quality, volume and price points, he said.

In some cases, the restaurant might consider items to be local when they are sourced from farms located more than 100 miles from a restaurant — from Brattleboro to serve the Burlington restaurants, for example, he said.

Distance from the restaurant is one of several factors Skinny Pancake uses to guide purchasing decisions. The restaurant’s buyers evaluate potential purchases based on their impacts on food security, the community, the economy, nutrition and the environment, Adler said.

Locally grown produce, locally raised meats and value-added products such as locally roasted coffee are included in The Skinny Pancake’s definition of local food, he said.

Last October, Skinny Pancake’s restaurant on Lake Street in Burlington purchased 71 percent of the food they served from local sources within Vermont or near to its borders, Adler said. 

This year, Adler said, the company will include its Hanover location in the October census of local purchasing.

To meet Skinny Pancake’s goals, the restaurant group buys some raw ingredients to process for all their restaurants. For example, The Skinny Pancake purchases about 2,500 pounds of basil from Miskell’s Premium Organics in Charlotte, Vt., annually. Restaurant staff then transform the basil into pesto in their commissary kitchen, freeze it and send it out to the restaurants.

Pesto is the only ingredient from the Burlington kitchen that the Hanover restaurant serves, Farina said.

Part of the reason Skinny Pancake chose to open its new restaurant in Hanover was because there is such a bounty of local food produced in the region, Adler said.

“(Growers) don’t have the outlets they should,” he said.

So far, the Hanover restaurant sources ingredients from Long Wind Farm in East Thetford, Fable Farm in Barnard, the New Hampshire Honey Bee in Gilsum, N.H.; McNamara Dairy in Plainfield, North Country Smokehouse in Claremont, Crossroad Farm in Post Mills, Robie Farm in Piermont, Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford, Black River Meats in North Springfield, Vt., and Mac’s Maple in Plainfield, Farina said.

Some products, Adler said, might not be locally grown, but have some value added in the area — products such as coffee, beer or smoked meats.

The most far-flung item that Skinny Pancake might call local is King Arthur Flour. Most of the grains in the flour are grown and milled elsewhere in the United States — primarily Kansas, North Dakota and New York state — but the product is sold by the Norwich-based company, which has made a commitment to the community, Adler said.

In addition to the emphasis on local ingredients, The Skinny Pancake offers meals at a lower price point than most other restaurants with a local food focus.

The humble crepe offers an opportunity to serve local food in an affordable way, he said. According to the online Hanover menu, Skinny Pancake’s crepes are priced between $5.50 and $13.95.

While the Skinny Pancake has a local-first philosophy, there are some items which are not produced locally in the quantities and at the price point that the restaurant requires. In addition, sourcing ingredients from a variety of local producers rather than one distributor adds complexity.

One area of frustration for Adler is the persistence of Nutella on The Skinny Pancake’s menu.

“It’s a problem,” he said.

Nutella is made with palm oil, which is an unsustainable product because in some tropical regions, rainforests are being replaced with oil palm plantations.

To try to resolve this crisis of conscience, Adler is working with Burlington-based Lake Champlain Chocolates to create a replacement for the chocolate hazelnut spread. At this point, the chocolate company cannot produce enough to satisfy Skinny Pancake customers’ appetites for the sweet treat.

Another problematic area is strawberries. While the restaurant uses locally grown strawberries for the three weeks when they’re in season, most of the time, the berries in Skinny Pancake’s crepes come from elsewhere. The restaurant could replace fresh strawberries with some sort of frozen compote, but Adler said he doesn’t think customers would be satisfied with the replacement.

One ongoing challenge is ensuring that Skinny Pancake’s local claims are current. Sometimes a farm name may appear on the restaurant’s marketing materials before or after purchases take place.

“Individual direct-from-farm relationships mean more contact people and generally a more complex system,” Adler said in an email this month.

Despite the difficulty, Adler also expressed a commitment to continuing to pursue such relationships.

“It yields the freshest and highest quality product while getting the cash directly into the farmer’s hands rather than via a distributor,” he said.

This year, Skinny Pancake staff used estimates for the quantity of vegetables they would need for the new restaurant in conversations with growers early in the season.

It can be easier for a restaurant getting on its feet to call Black River Produce, a regional distributor that carries some local items, rather than calling a lot of individual farmers, Adler said. One way Skinny Pancake staff can identify products that could be purchased from farms is to look at past Black River invoices.

“If we can figure out how to do it inexpensively in a way that works for consumers, farms and ourselves, well, I guess we then feel like we’re winning!” Adler wrote.

Adler said The Skinny Pancake returns more than $1 million a year to the local food economy.

Though it is difficult to evaluate restaurants’ farm-to-table claims, the Skinny Pancake’s Burlington and Montpelier locations appear to be fulfilling Adler’s goals. Both locations have earned the Vermont Fresh Network’s Gold Barn Honor, a recognition for restaurants and chefs who have surpassed the network’s baseline requirements for membership.

The Burlington restaurant partners with 43 food producers and the Montpelier restaurant partners with 25, according to the network’s website.

The network’s executive director, Meghan Sheradin, said The Skinny Pancake stands out because of the price point of its meals, its openness about how it operates and the volume of local food moving through its kitchens.

Skinny Pancake’s arrival on the Upper Valley food scene seems to dare the region’s other restaurants to scale up their commitment to local purchasing. Some other Upper Valley restaurateurs admire Skinny Pancake’s model and hope the restaurant’s emphasis on local purchasing might bring down costs for everyone by creating greater economies of scale.

“I think it’s great,” said Robert Meyers, Three Tomatoes Trattoria’s owner. “I’m all for it.”

The focus on crepes makes it easier to purchase local products, he said, noting that Skinny Pancake’s approach might not work for a restaurant like his, with a more diverse menu.

William Kinney, the marketing and function manager at the Norwich Inn, said he’d like to see lower costs for local products.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” he said. “More people doing it helps everybody.”

Jon Cohen, owner of Deep Meadow Farm in Ascutney, struck a note of caution.

“You have to remember where Skinny Pancake is,” he said. He questioned whether the Hanover restaurant will go through the same volume of produce as its northern siblings.

“We’ll see.”

Staff Writer Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.