Could crêpes be the new tortillas? Like New World Tortilla before it, The Skinny Pancake food cart on Church Street will soon move to permanent digs - on the Burlington Waterfront, no less. In their new, four-season spot, Benjy Adler and his business partners - Mike Rimoin and Jon Warnow - will be wrapping crêpes around everything they can think of. Some of their wackiest ideas: salads in crêpe bowls, sushi crêpes and crunchy crêpe chips. In a further move to challenge the "wrap" as food enclosure of choice, they're planning to offer "crêpedillas," quesadillas made with . . . well, you get the idea.
Since 2003, when they were still students at Middlebury College, Adler, Rimoin and Warnow - or some combination thereof - have spent summers plying slender, sweet or savory flapjacks from a cart on Church Street. They also dragged their cart to progressively larger events around the state and found an empty niche. "Nobody does crêpes," Adler observes. Last year, they purchased a school bus and converted it to run on veggie oil, so Rimoin could peddle pancakes in Burlington while Warnow whipped 'em up for folks at local fairs and festivals.
Now these conscientious crêpe-makers are really turning up the heat. "We'd outgrown our ability to work out of a home," explains Adler, 26, who says his idea of a permanent location was "a shoebox, sort of an Ahli Baba's kind of thing." Instead, the group landed in a west-facing space in Burlington's Lake and College building, with exposed concrete floors, tables made from reclaimed lumber and an open kitchen. "The most ambitious thing we could possibly find," Adler says, adding with a laugh, "It's typical of me."
Although the name will stay the same, the new Skinny Pancake menu will be heftier than the cart's. Along with soups, salads and smoothies, seasoned chef Tim Collins - who moved from the Cayman Islands to take the job - plans to whip up a bunch of creative new crêpe dishes. One that's in the works: the "garlique chique," featuring blackened chicken breast with garlic-roasted red pepper and onions. On the sweet side, they'll have a deep-fried, decadent, all-American ice cream crêpe. "It's one of those things where your mouth gets confused," Adler enthuses. "It's hot and crispy on the outside and cold on the inside. I have overwhelming faith that this product is going to blow people's minds."
There's more: "If we're still standing by fall, we're toying with the idea of offering fondue. We have a 'crêpe dream' of having a folk-and-fondue music festival," Adler says.
As Eurocentric as it all sounds, the owners of The Skinny Pancake have been careful not to offend local sensibilities. The cart's initial opening just happened to coincide with a rising tide of Francophobe sentiment. "We were tempted by names like the Crêpeful Dead and Planet of the Crêpes," Adler explains. "But the war in Iraq had just begun. People were calling their fries 'freedom fries,'" he gripes, "and I'm like, 'Great, we're starting a crêperie.'" The name they did choose, The Skinny Pancake, "kind of Americanizes it . . . We don't need to have framed photos of the Eiffel Tower to make really great crêpes."
What do the owners of this ever-expanding enterprise need? Lots of energy, a supply of local ingredients - theirs was the first Church Street cart to garner Vermont Fresh Network certification - and two crucial pieces of equipment they playfully refer to as "the whirligig" and "the saber."
The whirligig, known in the industry as a "crêpe rake," is used to spread the batter on a hotplate until it's as thin as can be and larger than an LP. The saber, commonly called a "crêpe wand," helps crêpe-meisters flip the delicate rounds without breaking them. How can you recognize a well-made crêpe? It must be ethereal, yet strong enough to envelop a generous mound of filling. It should have golden-brown blisters on the outside. And of course, it's gotta taste good.
Like the "Lumberjack," a juicy parcel of ham-and-sharp-cheddar with optional apples, topped with a dose of honey mustard. Other cheesy combos include apples and brie or spinach and feta. The honeyed "Pooh Bear" hits more of a single note, but it's a good one. To facilitate fork-free, cart-side eating, Rimoin practices the art of culinary origami. Savory crêpes are folded "envelope style" into rectangles. Dessert crêpes are large triangles.
Like snowflakes, no two pancakes are the same at The Skinny Pancake cart, which typically goes through 5 gallons of batter on a weekend day. Although Adler acknowledges the importance of standardization in running a restaurant, he says that in the past, "We prided ourselves on our inconsistency . . . if bigger dudes came by, we'd make them a bigger crêpe." The idea was that "each crêpe is a work of art unto itself."
At least one crêpe's claim to fame is functional: the bestselling "Lovemaker" combines strawberries, Nutella and whipped cream. The way Rimoin tells it, one day a couple appeared at the cart with two friends they'd set up on a blind date. Up to that point, the date had been a bust - the duo was too shy to make a romantic connection. That changed when they ordered a round of "Lovemakers." Two weeks later, Rimoin learned that, post-crêpes, the timid twosome had hit it off; they were already making plans to move in together.
Fostering human relationships is great, but the SP team is keenly focused on another kind of relationship, the one between humans and the environment. (Adler spent nine months helping out with the Katrina aftermath in New Orleans, Rimoin worked with Focus the Nation on an anti-global warming initiative, and Warnow is a core coordinator for Step It Up.) Their eco-friendly philosophies play out in every aspect of their business, from the "green," LEED-certified building they're inhabiting to the veggie oil that powers their vehicles to the local products they choose to use in their crêpes.
But striving for a utopian business model isn't easy or inexpensive. As Adler works to get the restaurant up and running, he agonizes over every detail. "If there's a corner of sustainability we're missing out on, I don't know which one it is," he says. "We'll have compostable cups and a full range of compostable forks and knives. We use unbleached paper products. We'll be composting . . . we're gonna take our environmental initiative as far as we possibly can without crippling our ability to succeed financially."
One area in which they do plan to compromise is that of choice non-local ingredients that are associated with crêpes. "We'll have Nutella available, but . . . we're developing our own chocolate spread, because Nutella produced in the U.S. has hydrogenated oils," Adler says. Likewise, they'll stock bananas, out-of-season strawberries, and a few other items that crêpe fans won't be able to live without. What will be local? All the ingredients in the batter except for salt, sugar and vanilla extract; various fruits and vegetables in the summer; dairy products, syrup, honey and meats.
Adler is especially vocal about the biz's bacon, which will come from Duclos and Thompson in Weybridge. "We're going to have the best bacon in town," he boasts. "It's a whole other level of bacon."
These batter flippers have some grandiose notions. But the appeal of their product is tried and true in France, where crêpes are basically fast food - and a street-side classic. Rimoin brings the discussion back down to earth: "The number one rule is 'Love the pancake.' If we don't do that, there's no point in doing it at all."