The Starbucks of Meat

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One day, while consulting for one of the nation’s oldest organic farms, Bill the Butcher founder and CEO J’Amy Owens had an idea. During her 30-year career in retail, consulting with companies ranging from Starbucks to Saks Fifth Avenue, Owens had watched customers turn to neighborhood bakeries, farmers’ markets and local coffee shops. Owens thought the same locally focused model might work for another food most people eat regularly: meat.

In May 2009, she teamed up with William Von Schneidau, an experienced chef, and that August they launched the first Bill the Butcher shop in Woodinville. The venture has grown aggressively since then, with locations opening last year on the Eastside in Redmond and Bellevue, as well as in the Laurelhurst, Magnolia and Madison Valley neighborhoods of Seattle. Stores in Edmonds and Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood are under construction, and the company plans many more, all cut from the same pattern: Each shop has a single butcher who cuts meat to order; the meat comes from livestock that is raised locally in open pastures and, whenever possible, organically; no hormones are used and none of the food is genetically modified.

If anyone can convert the concept into success, Owens can. In 2000, an industry group named her one of the 25 most influential people in retail. A frequent public speaker, Owens has headlined conferences on retail strategies and appeared on the cover of Inc. magazine in 1999 beside the headline “Sales Guru to the Stars: What you can learn from the woman who helped Nike, Blockbuster and Starbucks energize their brands.”

Owens’ experience in retail suggested to her that people would pay a premium for sustainably raised meat at a local butcher shop. Last year, she took the unusual step of buying controlling interest in a public shell corporation and merging Bill the Butcher into it, creating what may well be one of the nation’s smallest publicly traded retail companies. Von Schneidau also departed the partnership in 2010, leaving Owens as the sole corporate officer.

Owens’ goal is to open 120 to 150 company-owned Bill the Butcher stores west of the Mississippi River.

“I think we’re going to be the Starbucks of meat,” she says. “I hope to have a national brand. I want to educate consumers about where their meat comes from, who raises it and why we have to keep small farmers and ranchers in business. We have a real opportunity to get some first-mover advantage.”

In order to capitalize on that momentum, Owens plans to open stores “where the consumer is well ahead of us.” That means areas such as Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Austin and Denver, and other neighborhoods where residents have median incomes of $75,000 or more, according to the company’s annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Those consumers come from a variety of backgrounds, and Owens says Bill the Butcher’s meat appeals to them for different reasons. Some buy the meat because the firm supports sustainable farming practices. Others want to support local farmers and ranchers, and boost the local economy. Others just prefer the taste of the meat to what’s available at the supermarket.

Owens says Bill the Butcher will help develop a food distribution system that benefits everyone involved. Consumers benefit because grass-fed beef contains more protein, less fat and greater amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids than corn-fed beef. The company says the local farming economy earned more than $700,000 from Bill the Butcher last year, a figure that will continue to grow with the opening of more stores. And Owens says the animals live without antibiotics and free of feedlot conditions.

“It’s better for the animals, for the farmer and for the humans,” Owens says. “There’s every business, health and moral reason to [buy our meat].”

The company makes heavy use of Facebook and Twitter to generate buzz. Last Thanksgiving, 750 people ordered turkeys from Bill the Butcher via PayPal. Owens says the business has contributed to the local community by participating in health- and bicycling-related fairs. It also sponsors a softball team—Bill’s Tenderizers.

Rapid expansion has not occurred without scrutiny. Last year, The Stranger alleged Bill the Butcher misled consumers by identifying certain meats as organic when they were not. On its website (billthebutcher.com), the company responded that it had never represented its meat as being 100 percent certified organic: “Instead, we have said ‘organic and natural, grass fed and local’ to best represent our total mix of meaty offerings.” The company also pledged that it would create a system that tracks the meat from farm to display case.

Owens insists that as customers’ palates continue to evolve, they will demand more local, sustainably raised meats. “This is a permanent trend,” she says. “I do not worry about that, not even for one second. If this quality meat is available, the choice is very easy to make.”

The firm recently opened a 5,000-square-foot commissary in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, allowing it to buy whole animals and butcher them into smaller portions. The centralization eliminates the need for a second butcher at each shop. The company can also centrally process less desirable cuts of meat into high-margin products such as jerky and stocks.

Too, the commissary should make it easier to open new stores. By the end of the year, Bill the Butcher hopes to have 20 retail locations in Western Washington. To fund the expansion, the business is seeking capital investment from a variety of sources. Owens says she has no doubt Western Washington can sustain that many stores.

“The grocery world is worth $500 billion,” Owens says. “We’re taking a small slice of the market, but it’s a huge market. The market is absolutely here, and so is the interest.”

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