Who knew you could build a mini empire on pancakes?
by Rosie Wolf Williams
Brothers Benjy (left) and Jonny Adler got into the food business in 2003 when they opened a crêpe cart on Church Street in Burlington. Four years later, they opened The Skinny Pancake, their first restaurant, on the Burlington waterfront, and have since opened The Chubby Muffin in the Old North End; a Skinny Pancake in Montpelier; a catering business called Have Your Cake; and three restaurants at Burlington International Airport.
There is no French connection at the Skinny Pancake. The crêpes are mindfully local, filled with ingredients sourced from Vermont farmers whenever possible. The company and its owners, Jonny and Benjy Adler, dig deep into the rich and complex soil of social responsibility.
The Adlers grew up in Connecticut, the second and third oldest of five children, respectively. Jonny says his happiest childhood memories were at Lake George in the summer and skiing in the winter in Vermont.
Their strong values came from their parents, but Benjy was also impressed by lessons learned at Keewaydin Camp at Lake Dunmore. “They had candlelight ceremonies where they talked about the 13 virtues, and helping the other fellow. Those are the basic tenets that absolutely run deep today in our own set of ethics.”
Although his siblings went to Keewaydin, Jonny opted to go to a camp in North Carolina. He also blazed his own trail by attending Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., earning a degree in history in 2001. “Jonny is the black sheep of the family, both in his college education and his camping experience,” says Benjy with a laugh. He and the other Adler children went to Middlebury College. Benjy graduated with a degree in music, “in 2003.5,” he says.
As soon as Jonny graduated from Davidson he was back in Vermont. He and his brother Ted had created MiddKid.com, a Middlebury College website. Ted started working it full time, and they opened 22 school websites in 2001. They soon realized it wasn’t going to work, so they founded Union Street Media and began building websites for businesses, eventually moving to business aggregators and selling sites.
“I am an opportunist,” says Jonny. “I have always wanted to do well and still live a good life. We wanted to make a living in Vermont; it was going to be hard to do that working for other people, so we needed to start something.”
In the winter of 2002-03, Jonny met a friend of Benjy’s who was in Vermont for the summer. She mentioned that Church Street needed a crêpe stand. “I thought, That is a great idea,” says Jonny. “I started thinking, How hard could this really be? A lot of great businesses have started with carts on Church Street. I applied for a permit and got a friend to help build the cart.”
The cart was built using plywood on a junked sailboat trailer. “The center of gravity was about 6 feet high,” says Benjy.
A few months before Jonny planned to debut it for the 2003 Discover Jazz Festival, he called Benjy, who was in his last semester of college, to join him. Jonny was working at Union Street Media during the day, and building the cart at night. He had spent his entire savings, around $4,000, to get the cart ready for the street.
Benjy’s awareness of local food was raised at Middlebury, a breadbasket of quality farm products, and conversation bubbled about sustainability and the support of farmers. Benjy took notice. He also wanted to support Vermont’s musicians and the local art scene. He had served as musical chair at the social house in college, booking, promoting, and organizing festivals.
“In 2003, the cart was run by me and my brother and this mutual friend of ours,” says Benjy. We gave the business away in the summer of 2004 in exchange for someone buying us a new trailer, since the other one had flipped over on me on a drive to its storage facility. And we lent it to two college friends the summer of 2005.”
Benjy had dabbled selling food at a couple of fairs and festivals in 2005, he says, and he bought a used school bus to use for that purpose. He drove it to New Orleans to help with post-Katrina efforts, and in his nine months there, he converted the bus to run on vegetable oil. “I came back in 2006 and ran the cart with those two friends, who were both kind of partners at the time,” he says.
In 2006, Jonny rented commercial kitchen space from a Burlington restaurant to handle the demand for food. When they were no longer able to rent the kitchen, Erik Hoekstra of Redstone suggested they consider a restaurant instead of finding another kitchen. Melinda Moulton, CEO of Main Street Landing, had space in her building on the waterfront.
Jonny remembers being terrified when signing the lease in 2007, but Benjy already knew there would be a second restaurant.
“Benjy believes he can do things,” says Jonny. “We came up with a term called ‘pancaked.’ You are overworked — exhausted — and you don’t know what your life was like before The Skinny Pancake. He gave himself the shingles, opening the first restaurant. He has always had a strong values system and belief that things should be better than they are, and that he can help get them there.”
Moulton says The Skinny Pancake brings a unique energy to Lake Street, and aligns with the mission of Main Street Landing. “Just recently I nominated Benjy to become a board member with me on Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. He agreed to do it.
Their second restaurant opened in Montpelier in June 2009. Both restaurants thrived, but they had no space to continue to run the business efficiently. In 2010 they purchased a building in the Old North End to serve as headquarters for their festival operation and catering business, now called Have Your Cake. The commissary, called The Chubby Muffin, had kitchen space for prep work for The Skinny Pancake in Burlington and the Church Street cart.
“In the process, we were able to do a minor renovation and introduce a small bar and gain some seating at the waterfront location,” Benjy says. “Last summer we underwent a massive renovation. The new restaurant is twice the size of the old restaurant.”
Jonny never worked at the cart and admits he knew nothing about the restaurant business. Benjy states his brother has a natural gift for business, and to date has not been paid for his work in branding, marketing, and involvement with The Skinny Pancake. He calls Jonny his “not-so-silent partner.”
“I knew from being in the software industry when I couldn’t write code, I needed programmers that could do that,” says Jonny. “You need to go out and find the right talent. Our director of operations, Chris Benjamin — he is the man behind the curtain. He came on in June of 2010 and is an incredibly hardworking and capable guy.”
In 2012, they leapt again, opening a kiosk called The Chubby Muffin at Burlington International Airport (BTV), followed in 2013 by two other restaurants there.
“We are ambassadors of the Vermont local food movement, and this is the first and last chance people have of seeing this,” says Benjy, whose email slug reads, in part, “S.C.E.N.E. (Security, Community, Environment, Nutrition, Economy).” “The largest airport in the state should have a symbolically relevant food service.”
The Skinny Pancake uses a large percentage of local food and local value-added products (such as Lake Champlain Chocolates and Vermont coffees). “The last audit, last October, the percentage was 65.1 percent,” Benjy says.
An example of their stress on local foods is a growing contract with David Miskell’s farm for basil, which, last year, they expected to produce about 4,000 pounds.
“A refugee from the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program who worked at the farm also happened to work for us,” says Jonny. “He harvested the basil, drove it to the restaurant, and he processed and froze all of it into pesto for us.”
Gene Richards, director of aviation at BTV, was impressed by the well-researched proposal that was given to him for the airport location. “It had a refreshing direction: edgy and strong in many ways. People are thrilled about the variety of the food, and how unique and special it is. And with the food coming from a local food shed here, it’s very impressive to people.”
From the cart’s humble beginning on Church Street, sales have increased 750 percent. Most years, revenues have doubled, with more modest years 2010 through 2012. Sales doubled again with the opening of the airport restaurants.
Moulton says the brothers are very different, but that seems to help the business work. “They each cover the other. It’s wonderful, because at the end of the day, it’s a hundred percent. They complete the circle.”
Both brothers live in Burlington with their girlfriends. They are avid skiers and believe in healthy living. Benjy bikes, plays guitar and piano, and practices yoga.
“It is important to me to contribute to a better, healthier, more prosperous society. I believe that can actually be accomplished through capitalism, which is not necessarily a common view,” says Benjy. “I happen to have found this convenient and effective for-profit vehicle to impact positive change. We are capitalists about what we do, but I think we are trying to show that it can be done differently, in a way that can be mutually beneficial for society as a whole.”
Jonny is quick to point to his brother as the guiding force for the mission of the business. “I am a pragmatist. Benjy is a visionary. I want to run a good business that makes people happy, but Benjy wants to change the world.” •