The Flatbread Pizza Company opened its doors on the Vineyard on July 3. That was just about four months ago. Somehow, in this short span of time, Flatbread has nestled into the community and grown deep roots. To use local terms, it doesn’t feel like a day-tripper, scattered and a bit crazed with the need to do everything for everyone in a matter of hours. Nor does it feel like a summer dink, yet another vacationer, a little more grounded perhaps but still captive to the roving eye. This is my vacation, by God, and I will have fun at all costs!
Somehow it doesn’t even feel like a washashore, the term given to most new residents, those who have lived here for a mere 150 years or less.
No, it feels like an Islander: an integral part of this community.
So, the question is, how did they accomplish such a feat?
The answer includes, of course, a number of factors, not least among them delicious food. But perhaps the main reason is a man named Paul Cucchiarelli.
Mr. Cucchiarelli is an opener. He’s the dude who blows in one day, alone at first with little more than a bagful of smarts and a can-do attitude, and creates something out of nothing. And then, once the creation process is complete, usually a year or more, he moves on to the next location, wherever that may be.
Last year he opened Whistler, before that Maui.
Is there a title for a job, or better yet a life, such as this?
“I’m the move-around guy,” he said.
Mr. Cucchiarelli does have help in the form of the Flatbread infrastructure and so technically he is not alone. And yet at the same time he is, for awhile, a team of one, creating relationships with the community and hiring the staff. And what is the first step when entering new territory?
“I try to find out when the farmers’ market is and that’s where I go and start chatting with people and letting them know that we like to use local stuff,” he said.
He quickly made connections with the Farm Institute, Morning Glory Farm and North Tabor Farm. He also discovered Whippoorwill Farm because, as he said, “that’s where my farm share was.”
Using local, organic food has always been a hallmark of Flatbread. And Mr. Cucchiarelli said it is the main reason for their success.
“Restaurants should be food centered,” he said. “That sounds obvious but a lot of places seem to use gimmicks to sell food, whereas we use food to sell food. We use high-quality ingredients and we make a good product. And we keep it simple. We just do pizza, salad and a brownie sundae for dessert. We don’t have a crazy menu so what we do, we do really well.”
This adherence to a food-centered ethos is what drew Mr. Cucchiarelli to the company in the first place. At the time he was just another twenty-something running fast from a stint back at his parents’ house after college. But he wasn’t running blindly. He truly knew his food. A vegan since college, he attended cooking school at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York city. He also has an undergraduate degree in environmental biology.
He landed in North Conway, N.H., mostly because two buddies had a spare room. He applied for a job at the Flatbread restaurant there and started out as “a prep cook, dishwasher, whatever they would do to give me hours.”
Within a year he was helping run the kitchen.
After working in the North Conway restaurant he went with a team to open a new restaurant in Bedford. While there, he met Jim Denholm who was about to become the managing partner for the next restaurant planned in Paia, Maui.
The Flatbread owners had been bitten by the surfing bug. If the waves don’t break in your backyard, time to change your backyard.
“He [Mr. Denholm] kind of recruited me,” Mr. Cucchiarelli recalled. “So I told him I’d go out and help train the staff and run the kitchen for the first year.”
You might think running an organic restaurant in Maui would be an embarrassment of riches. But a year-round growing season brings with it some year-round headaches.
“It’s harder than one would think to grow certain [organic] things there. Here it gets cold so a lot of insects die off. But not there. So it’s really hard to be organic with certain foods,” he said.
Mr. Cucchiarelli spent a year opening up the Maui location. The experience of going to a completely new place and embracing it not as a mere visitor but as a businessman devoted to his new community felt right.
“I told them [the owners] that this is what I want to do. I want to help with opening restaurants because I like the flexibility of being able to move around and see places. It was something new and challenging for me. Even though it’s sort of doing some of the same stuff, there’s always new challenges that arise when you move to a new location,” he said.
Next stop, Whistler, British Columbia. The owners had developed a serious skiing habit and had outgrown the small hills of the Northeast. Would Mr. Cucchiarelli be willing to trade in the surf shorts and flip-flops for a down parka? Would he be willing to embrace the challenge of finding local, organic food in the Great White North?
He spent the next eight months opening up the Whistler location doing what he does best — nurturing relationships with the local community and farmers. He just had to travel a bit further this time to find the farmers. He also had to be more creative with his pizza toppings.
“There’s the Pemberton Valley which is about 40 minutes north of Whistler and they are known for their potatoes. So we have a potato pizza on the menu. It’s called the Pemberton Potato Pie. It has a rosemary cream sauce,” he said.
After about eight months Whistler was up and running and Mr. Cucchiarelli began looking for the next challenge. He wrapped up his life there in April, took a month to travel across the country, and in June arrived on the Vineyard.
Flatbread Martha’s Vineyard has been a big success thanks to Mr. Cucchiarelli and his new staff. On Oct. 31 the restaurant will close its doors for the winter, but it will be back again in the early spring.
This winter Mr. Cucchiarelli plans to take some time off and travel to Guatemala. No Flatbreads down there, not yet at least. Then he plans to come back to the Vineyard in the spring and help with the re-opening.
Aha. Has the Island and its charms taken hold, coaxing yet another intrepid traveler to finally unpack the duffel bag for good? Mr. Cucchiarelli shakes his head.
“I’m still searching for that place where I’m ready to stop moving,” he said.