As John Meehan recalls, it was Jay Gould’s challenge to see who would join him in paddling surfboards to New Hampshire’s Isles of Shoals, along with Meehan’s willingness to take on such a daunting task, that sealed their link as business partners in the Flatbread Company restaurants.
“Jay could not find anyone to paddle with him or to take on this big venture,” says Meehan, laughing at the memory. The two have common traits, like having energy to spare, an abiding commitment to community, a fascination with business, and a belief in clean, good food. They also possess the unique, laid-back intensity of long-time surfers that creates an affable mellowness in their restaurants and in their corporate attitude.
The inspiration for Flatbread Company came years ago when Gould, who worked in his family’s Amesbury insurance company, visited a Vermont restaurant called American Flatbread during frequent ski trips. The weekend-only restaurant, which produced frozen flatbreads during the week, intrigued Gould. The Amesbury restaurant originally began in partnership with American Flatbread owner George Schenk; Gould was a licensee. Eventually, diverging business views led them into separate ventures, but Gould says he and Schenk remain friendly.
With no experience as restaurateurs, but plenty of gumption, they opened the first Flatbread Company in Amesbury in 1998. “It was a godsend that we didn’t have [business] experience,” said Meehan, explaining that he and Gould didn’t look at books, but rather considered how they wanted to experience Flatbread Company as customers. And their personalities work well together, as each brings different yet complementary qualities to management. Meehan calls Gould the conscience of the company, and Gould insists that Meehan does all the work. Like seeing a great wave coming at them, they jumped in knowing that, successful or not, the ride would teach them something.
Not everyone was as convinced. New restaurants are notoriously risky, and Flatbread Company serves flatbreads and organic salads and little else, save for a couple of desserts. “My dad called it the Titanic,” says Gould of his late father’s feeling that the business wouldn’t make it, noting that the elder Gould did eventually change his mind. Fourteen years later, Flatbread Company operates 10 restaurants with locations in Portsmouth and North Conway, New Hampshire; Portland, Maine; Somerville, Canton, Martha’s Vineyard, Amesbury, and Burlington, Massachusetts; Whistler, British Columbia, Canada; and even Paia, Maui. “I have been accused of putting restaurants in places I like to go,” says Gould with a grin. A Hampton, New Hampshire, restaurant is set to open this summer and a Providence, Rhode Island, one is next, says Gould.
Far from a hindrance, Gould says the restaurants’ specialized menu instead offers freedom. What Flatbread Company does it does well, says Gould, and that is what makes customers return. Food, plus enjoying it in a welcoming, family-friendly atmosphere, has been marginalized, he adds. Flatbread Company extols the Flatbread experience—an organic blend of people, food, atmosphere, and always a sense of community.
Good business, says Gould, comes down to something simple: “I figured out, finally, what the brand is,” he says. “It is what you do, not what you say.” The owners believe in pure food prepared and served in an open environment. Gould isn’t into gimmicky attention-grabbing methods to get people to try a flatbread, but he does believe both body and soul need to be nourished. “Consumers are a lot smarter than most businesses think they are,” says Gould. “We don’t have to tell them. We don’t have to say anything.” Instead, the Flatbread Company has to do something even more difficult—show them.
The company with an environmentally friendly bent begins this task by inviting customers into a dining room with a wood-burning clay oven as the focal point. The dancing flames simultaneously mesmerize diners and cook flatbreads. Children often gather (at a safe distance) to watch the oven. There are no televisions at Flatbread (well, there is one in Canada, but only for hockey games), and menu covers feature artwork by customers. Tuesdays are designated community nights, during which local groups hold benefits for organizations (to which the company donates $3.50 from each flatbread sold) and long-term employees promote a sense of gathering, instead of just grabbing dinner.
“From the start,” Gould says, “we wanted to be focused. I am a big believer in focus; it makes food good.” The repetition of preparing a few items from simple recipes, he says, brings the food to a higher level.
Flatbread Company keeps customers happy with offerings like nitrate-free pepperoni-and-mushroom flatbread, or the onion-mushroom-Kalamata olive-and-garlic oil vegan flatbread. When the atmosphere and the menu come together and please customers, the effect is positive. “We are trying to take cooking back to the way it was 100 years ago,” says Gould of the prominent ovens. “Humans like to see fire. And fire is beautiful.”
The ovens are built by a team of volunteers who begin with a stick basket, cover it with clay bricks, and dry it for several months. In use, each oven burns about a cord of wood every week, but the dining room is free of campfire haze because of the incredibly high temperatures. The Flatbread ovens work tirelessly, as all hot food in the restaurants (except for a small burner used to heat up fudge sauce) is cooked with wood. For things like caramelized onions, an enormous black cauldron sits over a fire cooking ingredients like a delicious brew. And all the restaurants, save for the Amesbury restaurant, have an open kitchen visible from the dining room, allowing diners to see their food as it is prepared.
The open atmosphere reassures diners and buoys Flatbread employees. Adalberto Gimenes, manager of the Amesbury location, says the openness changed his life. Arriving from Brazil and speaking no English, Gimenes started as a dishwasher in the Amesbury restaurant. Company-paid ESL classes at the Harvard University Extension School opened his world and his prospects. Flatbread Company is now a Gimenes family affair. His wife, Damaris, is a cook there, and his son, Adalberto, is a baker. “They gave me a chance,” he says. “They made a huge difference for me.” And that gets passed on. “What they did for me,” he says, “I try to do for our customers.”
With degrees in environmental science and business, Gould believes the restaurant bridges the gap between the two. “Flatbread Company is an environmental movement disguised as a business,” he says. Local farms provide seasonal ingredients for the freshest meals and also reduce transportation costs and pollution. A bumper crop of a local ingredients might end up getting worked into a Flatbread special. Flatbread chefs gear menus to community preferences; Hawaii’s restaurant produced Mopsy’s Kalua Pork Pie, a flatbread with pulled pork, pineapple, mozzarella and goat cheese, and a mango barbeque sauce that is now a staple on all menus.
Many Flatbread Company ideas hearken back to Gould’s Amesbury childhood, when he visited his mother’s family on what was then Woodsom Farm. Family-style dining included workers, family, and plentiful fresh food. Swimming in a pond, exploring the gardens, and playing in the hayloft left Gould with an appreciation for Mother Nature and for knowing where food comes from. “It was magic,” he says.
Gould is conscious of the possibility that as Flatbread Company expands, consumers will associate it with a chain and the belief some consumers have about chain restaurants serving mediocre food. Gould disagrees; he thinks of Flatbread Company as more like state parks. “You can’t have too many of those,” he says. Each restaurant, although recognizable as a Flatbread Company, has its own flavor that reflects its community, customers, and staff. “My mom had seven kids, and we are all different,” quips Meehan.
Despite the recent economic downturn, Flatbread Company never experienced the anticipated 10 to 15 percent decrease in sales. Instead, it intensified customer satisfaction, eliminating charges for extra salad dressing or sauce to keep customers happy. It might have taken some money off overall, but, says Meehan, the company remained strong.
Gould credits Flatbread Company staff with the popularity of the restaurants. “We have great people who take care of what needs to be taken care of,” he says. Managing partners earn a share of the base profits, which Gould hopes fosters an entrepreneurial spirit. If employees are invested, they will likely care more about the restaurants’ success. For instance, one Portland waiter brought his homemade caffeine-free Mad River Root Beer to the attention of managers, and it’s now offered on menus.
With feelings of community obligation running deep, even the buildings that house Flatbread Company restaurants get extra consideration. “We honor the building and put a restaurant on the inside,” says Gould. “We respect the building and don’t try to turn it into something else.”
Both owners put in long hours but don’t hide that they organize work around surfing times. Hardly the image of button-downed businessmen, Gould and Meehan are nevertheless driven. Despite the seemingly breezy surface (they wanted to name corporate headquarters “The Clubhouse”), Flatbread Company is meticulous in its operation and compelled to honor its mission. “It is a casual atmosphere, but we are very serious about what we do,” says Gould. Workers sample menu items weekly, and secret shoppers evaluate how everything is running. Independent sanitation testers ensure that cleanliness exceeds normal restaurant requirements.
Meehan believes customers notice the good “groove” that he himself feels upon entering Flatbread Company restaurants. “People want good food, and they can trust that we are going to great pains to provide that,” he says.
Headquarters: North Hampton, NH. Number of Restaurants: 10. Year Founded: 1998. Employees: approximately 450. Owners: Jay Gould and John Meehan. Contact: 603-926-9401 (headquarters). flatbreadcompany.com.