The Flatbread Company Grows with a Community-Based Approach
Inspired by a community-based approach to business and driven by the desire to provide the best ingredients possible, the Flatbread Company serves organic wood-fired pizza, fresh organic salads, and old-fashioned desserts. The 13-unit New England chain, which is headquartered in Boston but has stores in Hawaii and Whistler, British Columbia, may have a unified theme, but it allows each location to develop its own relationships with local farms and businesses. A few restaurants even have their own herb gardens.
The Flatbread Company was founded in 1998 by Jay Gould and John Meehan, but the brand’s history predates that company. In fact, Gould was working in insurance when he discovered the American Flatbread restaurant near his house in Waitsfield, Vermont. He was impressed and wanted to bring that style of flatbread pizza closer to his company’s headquarters in Amesbury, Massachusetts.
Fortuitously, American Flatbread owner and founder George Schenk, who founded his company in 1985, agreed to build Gould an oven and teach him how to use it. Gould was initially an American Flatbread franchisee, but he eventually left the brand to start his own concept, the Flatbread Company, with John Meehan.
The original Amesbury location opened in 1998 and was followed by one in Portland, Maine, in 2000. For a time, the Flatbread Company restaurants were opening new locations roughly every 16 to 18 months, spanning from Portland to North Conway and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and beyond.
“As deals would come in, the owners would take their time to look and find a building that had character—something that they thought would bring the community together,” says Thomas Keane, director of franchise development for the Flatbread Company. “They were—and still are—into restoring old buildings or repurposing a building.” For example, the Portland restaurant is located on the wharf by the ferry dock in a building that had been damaged in a fire, and the Canton, Massachusetts, store is situated in a shopping center that was once a golf course.
The brand began franchising nearly two years ago, and its system now numbers 13 units, including four franchised stores.
The Flatbread Company also purchased the American Flatbread brand in 2013, and Schenk (Gould’s original mentor) still operates the original American Flatbread location in Waitsfield. Gould and Meehan remain co-owners and are still very active in creative and business-development decisions.
Although the menus are essentially the same across the chain, the offerings can vary among locations in terms of ingredients sourced from local farms and the types of craft beers and cocktails.
In terms of management, the Flatbread Company has individual unit chefs as opposed to one culinary director over the entire enterprise, and two regional managers are responsible for all the units.
“Our weekly specials change every Friday afternoon, and we try to use as many local ingredients as we can,” Keane says. “If we can find ingredients for our salads that are local and in season, then we use those. However, for the most part, the menus do look very similar.”
Still unique variations arise. The Whistler location offers Four Cheese and Pemberton Potato Pie flatbreads and organic pear juice. The Hawaii restaurant serves Pele Pesto pizza (named for a fire goddess) and a coconut porter. The Georgetown, Massachusetts, restaurant features both grass-fed steak and Faroe Island salmon salads, as well as desserts that can include Barbara’s Homemade Brownie Sundae and Sarah’s Chocolate Chip Banana Bread.
There is also individuality in the amount of gardening done at each location. The Bedford, Massachusetts, location has a small herb garden outside, while the Somerville store has a rooftop garden.
Keane says that if employees can grow their own herbs and enjoy the work, the regional manager will help establish the necessary sanitation and the culinary responsibilities.
“We’re not really trying to grow a lot of our own food most of the time,” Keane says. “Usually it’s just herbs. We really rely on the local farms and the organic or natural ingredients that are supplied by our regional food supplier.”
Each location of the Flatbread Company also creates a beverage menu with an emphasis on local, high-quality ingredients. The Providence, Rhode Island, location has featured local breweries like Proclamation Ale, Grey Sail Brewing of Rhode Island, and Narragansett Beer. In Portland, the beverage menu has included beers from Liquid Riot Bottling Company and Boothbay Craft Brewery, as well as a summer cocktail made of Maine blueberry purée and Maine vodka, lemons, and maple syrup.
“If a manager doesn’t have his finger on the pulse of the craft beer scene in that region, then he may delegate to another employee who is really into it,” Keane says. “This empowers our employees to make the Flatbread Company a bigger part of their life and become more involved with the community.” He adds that the number of beer taps in each restaurant ranges from eight to about 20.
Keane says the Flatbread Company conducts research when entering a new market to determine what is being grown locally and how the restaurant can incorporate it into the menu. Regional managers hire each unit’s management team and work with them to establish and cultivate regional relationships.
The Flatbread Company also supports the community by hosting different events. For example, the Bedford, Massachusetts, restaurant holds singer-songwriter performances on Wednesday night and has also hosted art classes. Like all locations, it also has a weekly benefit night, when the designated proceeds go to a local charity.
“It can be anything from a fire station or police station to a cancer walk to a local farm,” Keane says. “It’s a lot of fun and gets our team involved in the community on a deeper level. It gives a lot of meaning to what we’re doing.”