Schenk's career perfectly illustrates the "triple bottom line" business philosophy of social entrepreneurs who place equal emphasis on people, planet, and profits, says Enid Wonnacott, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. "It really came from a very loving, big-hearted place," she says of his early work establishing American Flatbread. "He didn't think it was going to make him rich."
American Flatbread restaurants have a family-friendly atmosphere featuring a wood-fired oven and gingham-checked tablecloths – and a mission that promotes tolerance, social justice, and environmental sustainability. Each week Schenk writes a dedication for his menus that explores issues of the day, and he often ponders the teachings of ancient philosophers.
The flatbread is occasionally served with political overtones. In December 2002, for example, it was baked with salt harvested from the Dead Sea – half in Israel, half in Jordan. And in December 2009 it was topped with Afghan saffron as a gesture of support for Afghan poppy farmers trying to find alternatives to the opium trade.
Schenk's aim is to stretch customers' minds but not alienate them, he says. "When we do things that cross political lines and social barriers, we can open doors that lead to places we can't predict," he said recently in an interview at his log cabin overlooking Vermont's Green Mountains. "That is how we improve understanding of one another."
Schenk often leverages his prominence as a businessman to take public stands on issues ranging from nuclear waste to agricultural policy. He doesn't employ a fixed strategy, he says, but typically pens an opinion article in Vermont's largest newspaper, The Burlington Free Press, and later stages a benefit bake or public event to promote conversations and activism.