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Editorial: Hillside Pizza’s inspired project creates jobs while raising money

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Who knew pizza could be so inspiring? Craig White, the co-founder of Hillside Pizza, got his inspiration for his business in 2001 at the commercial kitchen run by the Franklin County Community Development Corp., where many small startup food companies get launched.

White left his job as a Bement School chef, and with social worker and organic gardener Bob Lindner, created Hillside Pizza.

The original concept was to sell uncooked, fresh pizzas to school groups who resell them as fundraisers for events like this weekend’s Super Bowl parties.

Like a good dough, the business expanded beyond charity fundraisers to direct retail sales of frozen pies at places like Green Fields Market, and then restaurants in Deerfield, Hadley and Bernardston.

The business boasts of its use of organic sauce and flour and other organic ingredients, much of it locally sourced.

About three years ago, White melded his business with another passion — Brattleboro’s Inspire School for students with autism, which he helped establish. Now, Hillside offers jobs to the school’s students and alumni, and it was those students that inspired his latest expansion: Hillside-Inspired Pizza — a new bake-in-the-box line of frozen pizzas that are being carried in an ever expanding list of stores, including Foster’s Supermarket in Greenfield as well as Atkins Market in Amherst, State Street Deli in Northampton, Cooper’s Corner in Florence, Atlas Farm stand in Deerfield, Millstone Market in Sunderland, North Quabbin Coop in Orange and other stores in Berkshire County and southern Vermont.

The growth of the “HIP pies” business is keeping an increasing number of Inspire students busy at the former Streeter’s General Store building in Bernardston, where a full commercial kitchen and production facility have been installed.

“We’ve realized there’s such a need for real jobs for folks with different abilities. How do we do that? We need to sell more HIP pies and more fundraising pizzas,” White said recently as Inspire students and other staffers with autism were preparing for Super Bowl sales. The Bernardston operation has about 15 employees overall, but by next year White hopes to bring on 12 adults with autism.

White estimates that last year Hillside sold $100,000 worth of HIP pies — a total he hopes to triple by next year, as more stores get added.

“The most important thing is to get them a job, where they feel good about themselves, and to give their families some respite,” said White.

His wife, Amy, pointed out that the pizza business is well-suited for people with a variety of abilities, from making boxes and grating cheese to moving products to the new 20-by-8-foot walk-in freezer in the basement that can hold 2,000 pizzas.

So the Whites have managed to run a business that doesn’t just make its owners a profit, but also provides jobs for people who otherwise might have had difficulty finding work.

And through its fundraiser line, this for-profit business indirectly helps local charities. A sign in the restaurant announced recently that, so far, the business has helped groups raise $486,000 for charities. By the time the Super Bowl is done, that amount will easily top the half-million mark, assures White. It also donates some of its HIP pie profits to local charities.

“It’s not about the money. It’s not about the pizza,” explains Amy White. “It’s about the difference you make and the joy to be able to do that.”

Now that’s inspiring.