Welcome to The Rake’s recurring educational food & drink feature, “Shit Where You Eat.” Our aim is to give a loving and tender look at the entities and people responsible for sustaining Vermont’s thriving service industry. As tourism flourishes alongside a burgeoning class of “COVID refugee” work-from-home transplants, the service industry promises to figure more prominently than ever in Vermont’s economy. The tourists, graphic designers, freelance marketing gurus, lobbyists, UX designers, tech workers, and various other white-collar brahmin flooding into the state can’t be expected to cook their own meals, pour over their own coffees, or mix their own boozes every day of the week; nor should they expect to carry said items over to a table except under great duress (if there is enough potential for a photo op this aversion may be overridden). Thus in this space we pay homage to those captains of industry without whom, surely, starvation would befall the thousands of mid-twenties-to-early-forties yuppie scum fleeing the cityscapes their own mindlessly consumptive, email-and-networking-addled lifestyles have rendered identically picked-over boutique wastelands.
We’ll explore, in the structure of a four-course meal, all the disparate elements which serve to shore up such vital community hubs:
- In the Soup Course, we’ll meet the owners.
- As an Appetizer, we’ll see how the restaurant itself began.
- Moving on to the Salad Course, we’ll receive an impression of what it’s like to make the magic happen as an employee of said restaurant or restaurant group.
- As an Entree, we’ll go over the actual food served itself.
- Finally, we receive our Bill, and ponder whatever future impacts these establishments might have on their surroundings.
In this installment we’re going to explore The Skinny Pancake group, one of the early harbingers of fast-casual localvore aspirational-concept chain-reterritorialization of Vermont’s fine dining scene.
SOUP COURSE: MEET THE OWNERS
Jonny and Benjy Adler. Hailing from the rough-and-tumble, working-class town of Greenwich, Connecticut, Jonny, Benjy, and three of their other four siblings attended the similarly rough-and-tumble, working-class Middlebury College around the turn of the millenium. Of note is their brother, Ted Adler, who, while still at Middlebury College in 1999, decided to explore the nascent intersection of web development and localized capital. This blossomed into Vermont’s first digital real-estate sales and advertisement web firm, eventually dubbed Union Street Media. As one might expect, this firm was quickly fairly remunerative. A fun, if esoteric fact about Ted and Union Street: in 2007-08, he/they donated a few hundred bucks to the McCain campaign.
In 2003, Jonny and Benjy decided that Burlington needed a crepe cart — the genesis behind this particular idea apparently being that Jonny’s girlfriend needed a summer job. Using resources cobbled together from their parents ($2,300 and the physical materials for a food cart) as well as labor from said soon-to-be-estranged girlfriend, they opened the cart, dubbing it “The Skinny Pancake.” And they were off.
APPETIZERS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ENTERPRISE
Having no background or experience whatsoever in the food industry, they promptly made insanely little money while working ungodly hours (stop me if this sounds familiar to you). The second year of the cart’s existence, Jonny — apparently fed up with working soul-crushing hours with his now ex-girlfriend and brother for no money — departed the venture and began helping out brother Ted with Union Street Media. Benjy also having soured on the food cart business, he and Jonny handed the food cart off to Michael Rimoin and Jon Warnow, friends from and graduates of Middlebury College (a recurring theme in the Adler Bros’ ventures). Although the cart’s second year proved to be less futile, Warnow flew the coop to start a pizzeria in New York’s catskills. Little can be found about this pizzeria, but Warnow did go on to found 350.org, a climate change advocacy group, as well as fundraise for Bernie’s 2016 Presidential campaign and Zephyr Teachout’s 2016 House of Representatives bid. Let it not be said Jon Warnow knows nothing of Quixotic failure.
Returning to the Burlington area after a year volunteering in various Very Important humanitarian projects (virtuous, noble Katrina relief and ski trips), Benjy bummed around Burlington half-assedly running the same flailing food cart into the ground with Rimoin. In 2006, Jonny returned to come back to the cart, which by this point had managed to find kitchen space and market share by glomming onto Nectars’ kitchen and using a vegetable-oil-fueled school bus to mobilize the operation, reaching various Vermont food festivals and wook-riddled music festivals such as the Vermont Brewers Festival, Burlington’s “Chew-Chew,” Camp Bisco, “Moe.Down” — you get the idea. A year later in 2007, the brothers mysteriously summoned the cash to lease their now-flagship space on Burlington’s waterfront.
As Skinny Pancake is a privately-held company, there’s no public information on the initial investors, but some assumptions can be made vis-a-vis how they scared up the cash — between Jonny having spent the better part of the last several years at Union Street Media, their Middlebury connections, and their cushy upbringing, there are less obvious springboards from which to lease a swank, well-located restaurant space. It’s less evident whether the food cart’s coffers themselves were considered as capitalization for the initial push into a physical space, but at this point the cart was evidently in the black. Back came Warnow to consult, a head chef was hired, and the food cart remained on Church Street. At this crucial point, their great spark of innovation, the particular crux of their brilliance, was formed: what if they ran their restaurant like their food cart?
And thus, in 2007, the first-ever counter-service restaurant was invented, nobody ever having thought to do this beforehand in the entire history of human events. There are several benefits to this concept, but the key is that you can crank out far more product far more quickly with less labor than at a traditional table-service restaurant, as well as relax expectations on plating and service level. This concept, combined with presumably a decent level of capitalization and investment, was to be the beginning of great things.
In 2009, the operation expanded to Vermont’s capital, Montpelier; the next year brought a (now-shuttered) breakfast and baked goods space in the Old North End, the Chubby Muffin, as well as a catering business staged in said space’s kitchen.
After another two years, the brothers won a bid to be Burlington International Airport’s sole food vendor, opening airport spaces the ensuing year as well as buying out more space at the lakefront location. In 2015, they opened other locations inside of the University of Vermont and in the college town of Hanover, New Hampshire (home to the truly reprehensible Dartmouth College). Yet another location opened in Queechee in 2018, and another in Stowe in 2019, followed by filings for an Albany, New York location. In between were aborted filings in Shelburne and Troy, New York.
There are a few themes present in their pattern of expansion which belie a general business strategy: the service remains mostly counter-based, the labor pool is young due to footholds in tourist destinations, college towns, or locations even more dependent on limited or no competition for business or labor, and the menus are replete with low-cost, high-margin workhorses: crepes, various sandwiches, beer, wine, and spirits where allowed.
SALAD COURSE: WORKING CONDITIONS
The Skinny Pancake’s self-congratulatory effort to provide employees with the option of “healthcare contributions” comes with a decrease in employee pay, as do most employer-offered health plans which employees must pay into (employees may also choose to pay their own way for state-provided healthcare or, should they be eligible, remain on their parents’ healthcare as part of the ACA). This is to say nothing of their meager 401k contributions (try seeing how much builds in your 401k when you’re making $15/hr) or other, nebulous “voluntary benefits.”
Until at least recently, the Skinny Pancake was among a few restaurant groups guaranteeing a “minimum wage plus tips” instead of straight-up tipped wage. What this amounts to in practice is pooling tips across each restaurant branch, applying them to payroll, and if tips per pay period don’t meet this minimum wage threshold, applying the remaining balance from payroll budget.
In this model these pooled tips rarely surpass the wage threshold in a meaningful fashion, in part because a funny thing happens when you operate a counter-service model: customers tip closer to 10% than the sit-down standard of over 20%, and when these tips are applied to smooth out what is essentially a $0 an hour base salary (because, after all, tips are being relied upon to make up the bulk of a non-tipped minimum wage) there’s not a lot left over, even with the emphasis on volume that Skinny Pancake and other chain counter-service groups rely on.
When discussing this it’s always fun to remind yourself of the 2012 controversy over the Adlers securing an exemption for themselves, as a city-contracted vendor at Burlington International Airport, from paying their employees a “living wage,” their excuse being that food costs were so high as to preclude them from doing so and also maintaining “affordable” prices. If you feel like you’ve heard that line before, you have—it’s the favorite beaten-to-death talking point ponied out by every service industry executive whenever public discourse has the gall to touch upon how brutally little their workers are paid.
With this in mind, let’s see some employee reviews left for The Skinny Pancake on Indeed:
The preponderance of attributing a poor work experience to mismanagement may seem like an example of “it takes a few bad apples,” sure, but bad management doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from upper management and ownership. If unintentional, it comes from systemic, institutionalized poor decision-making, and if intentional, a willful disregard of base-level employees. Neither option paints a cheery portrait of ownership’s priorities.
Looking at the positions Skinny Pancake mentions they are hiring for at time of writing, essentially every location is experiencing turnover. Except, you may notice, in Hanover, New Hampshire. This would be because the New Hampshire location is currently closed after a real estate deal gone bad (so bad, in fact, that the resulting litigation went all the way to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, which decided unanimously against the Adlers).
ENTREES: HOW DOES EVERYTHING TASTE TONIGHT?
The food itself is, well, it’s fine I guess. It’s a chain creperie, so if you’re expecting something close to the authentic Quebec City or Paris or Saigon experience you’re going to be sorely disappointed. However, there’s something to be said for the Adlers’ initial concept: once you know how to spin one out, a crepe is pretty hard to fuck up. The regular batter tends to err on the side of a cakier, underaerated Americanized crepe, rather than the miraculously crispy, fluffy, pliable types the more worldly might be familiar with, but this is ultimately a question of utility: Skinny Pancake crepes tend to be overloaded with stuffing, which invariably will leak out from the inside of the crepe itself and make a huge fucking mess; at least you can’t complain about them stiffing you.
The Skinny Pancake also offers gluten-free crepes and has tooled around with the formula over the years, at various points using chickpea and cornmeal flour; now, seemingly, they’ve arrived at buckwheat flour crepes, which at bare minimum provide for something you could reasonably identify by consistency as a crepe. The filling options, although elevated with descriptors meant to imply provenance of great quality, are pretty representative of the same-old same-old things that white people, and thus most five-year-olds, get excited for: there is a ham-and-cheese crepe. A barbecue chicken crepe. A pesto crepe. A pulled pork crepe. Various “breakfast crepes,” which are all riffs on “we put eggs and cheese in a crepe.” A coterie of fruit-and-sugary-bullshit crepes, replete with nutella, whipped cream, and the prerequisite maple-flavored crepe.
If you’re looking for something that isn’t a crepe, you have your choice of hamburgers, sandwiches which – shocker – are the aforementioned crepe fillings, but between buns (gluten-free or not). Totally unrelated — did you know there are also breakfast sandwiches?
Rounding things out are the prerequisite salads for those who wish to dine conspicuously healthily (a red flag for any dining partner) and sides, the most ingenious stroke amongst which is offering french fries, cheese curds a la carte, and poutine – the sign of a truly inspired (read: suicidal) executive chef. There is spinach artichoke dip, which whenever I see on a menu makes me profoundly unhappy, because I know it is most likely one of the most-ordered, and worst, things on the entire godforsaken program.
The less said of the cocktails, the better. Okay, I’ll say one thing about the cocktails: I’d rather drink the exact same shit for 60% of the price at a Chili’s.
THE BILL: LOOKING INTO THE FUTURE
This is all easy to criticize from an outsider’s perspective, though! If we discount literally every other factor in this piece (jobs included) we should consider, if nothing else, what is always brandished aloft as justification for existence by the drooling, pinwheel-eyed types who champion these sorts of organizations: the economic heft and vigor they lend to otherwise-distressed and precarious communities.
Skinny Pancake pays great lip service to supporting business initiatives meant to aid BIPOC and womxn entrepeneurs, which is a pretty cool thing to do if you ignore that their little fiefdom feeds completely vertically up to themselves: a couple of cis male, white, generationally wealthy restaurant moguls whose business model relies principally on flogging a seemingly endless supply of cheap labor into the ground.
To their credit, the brothers have established strong ties with local food networks; perhaps less to their credit, they never cease to tout this very basic element of 21st-century restaurateurism as some sort of principal innovation and virtue central to their success, despite it largely being a byproduct of business relationships with one of the area’s more centralized, large produce distributors (Black River Produce, which understandably due to local production constraints is often left resorting to the same mass-produced, nonlocal producers as Sysco et al).
In 2020, the Skinny Pancake Group received a total of around $2.8 million through the Paycheck Protection Plan; this is based on an estimated $61,242 average annual salary per employee retained during Covid-19. This is self-reported information based on the 130 employees over eight locations that the Skinny Pancake said they had retained during the pandemic, which smells suspiciously like bullshit given that salaries of $100k or more annually are not factored into PPP payroll estimates, the bulk of their labor force is comprised of entry-level positions paying less than or approximately $15 an hour, and in a subsequent article Benjy is quoted as saying Skinny Pancake has “234 employees.” Much of the loan seems to have been contributed to helping the restaurant group participate in a privately branded exercise they dubbed “ShiftMeals,” itself a piggyback on the Everyone Eats program, which was an entirely separate source of government funding from PPP.
As part of the “ShiftMeals” initiative, the Skinny Pancake group launched a separate “GrowTeams” initiative, which seems to be a networking and marketing device for incorporating small community gardens, themselves reliant on volunteer labor, into large-scale single-focus food distribution hubs rather than individual-plot spaces; creating a network that restaurant groups such as Skinny Pancake might use as affordable auxiliaries to “traditional” “commercial” producers (read: producers who have to pay all their employees, however illegally and scantily they may).
Prior to the pandemic, Skinny Pancake spent in excess of $1 million on local food; $2.8 million of government aid, not counting Everyone Eats funds, to establish an end-around to traditional distribution networks seems to be a fairly sizable boon. Writ large this reads as Skinny Pancake using PPP and Everyone Eats money to harness volunteer labor and community gardens to cultivate a proprietary local food supply while retaining (self-admittedly) cash reserves sufficient for more than a year’s worth of food costs. You might never guess it, but the director of Adler’s “ShiftMeals” and “GrowTeams” initiatives? An old college pal from Middlebury.
This sort of behavior is concerning for the potential impact it has on Vermont’s community-based, non-commercial agriculture. What Skinny Pancake is in the process of piloting is an attempt to convert the state’s CSA networks — which many rely on for affordable, quality, locally-grown produce — from point-to-point hubs connecting residents and relatively small-scale agricultural operations into supply nexuses off of which privately held concerns such as Skinny Pancake might profit, while largely shunting payroll and operational expenses onto the public via state and federal funding. While this sort of scheme is hardly unique, it represents a continuation of the Adlers’ dealings with the University of Vermont and Burlington International Airport: grafting their private concerns onto nominally public institutions, moving said institutions toward operating purely as private profit centers. As growing supply and labor shortages pose an existential question regarding restaurants as we know them, the Skinny Pancake posits an answer: why bother compensating anybody for either?
Cocktail Hell is a nameless service industry professional in Vermont.