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.
A prime example is an informal campaign he started in 1998 to bring local food into public schools. After writing an opinion article that stressed a lack of connection between local farms and school cafeterias, he held a benefit bake and donated the proceeds (about $800) to schools in Vermont's Mad River Valley. He's repeated the event every year since.
Schenk's informal campaigning, says Ms. Wonnacott of the organic farming association, has played a "really huge role" in getting local food into schools. "So many businesses have similar missions, but George is someone who really takes the extra step," she adds.
But Schenk's informal advocacy work occasionally ruffles feathers inside his company and across the state. Some have wondered, for instance, if his plan to serve flatbread in Vermont prisons is the best use of his com-pany's resources when there are so many other worthy causes to support. And in June 2006, American Flatbread's Waitsfield restaurant was the epicenter of a tense standoff between Schenk and the Vermont Department of Health.