Not what you expect to see taped in the window, when what you want is a couple of grass-fed pork chops for dinner: “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are closed until further notice.” With that notice, first reported Tuesday morning by the Wallyhood blog, Bill the Butcher shuttered all six of its Seattle shops.
Eater.com swiftly followed by posting an anonymous message that claimed employees and suppliers hadn’t been paid since September 1st. BTB’s normally active social media campaign went silent. But there had been signs even before then. Sunny Kobe Cook, the founder of Sleep Country USA, posted on her personal blog that BTB’s chief executive, J’Amy Owens, had stiffed her on a $50,000 personal loan; the Seattle Times had reprinted Cook’s frustrated posts last week. Lots of dirty linen, the kind that doesn’t usually get aired, but BTB–very rare for such a small enterprise–was publicly traded: the information had to be public. And this scrutiny allows a rare glimpse into what happens when an under-capitalized business hits the rocks.
Chew on this: the meat biz is a trillion-dollar industry that employs half a million people in the US alone. It is decentralized, with tens of thousands of farms, finishing lots, processors, and distributors. “Grass-fed” beef is maybe one percent of that, but it’s a growing segment, and this is where we find the stylish and upbeat Owens, a guru of retail who created the first Starbucks stores for Howard Schultz, then went on to found The Retail Group (which developed the Laptop Lane concept for airports).
For a time she had a close personal relationship with William von Scheidau, a charismatic meat man who ran a shop called Bill the Butcher. When their affair broke up, she fought off a breach-of-contract lawsuit and retained the butcher shop name and concept, which eventually become a six-unit chain in Seattle with plans to open new markets in Oregon.
As it happened, the planned expansion into the Portland area never took place. And plans to take over her Montana-based meat supplier, Great Northern Cattle Company, never happened either.
What a shame.
Great Northern, as you can imagine, is right out of a story book: a rugged owner, Derek Kampfe, fourth generation, whose family has been stewards on this land outside Red Lodge, Montana, near Billings, for over a century. He put together a small group of like-minded ranchers who don’t use herbicides, pesticides or GMOs, and who follow the teachings of animal scientists Temple Grandin and Allan Savory.
And Montana! Two thousand souls in Red Lodge, one for every hundred or so head of cattle. County seat of Carbon County. US Highway 212 runs right through it, between the brick storefronts, taverns, and the Roman movie theater (an extended run for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”). Beyond the town, verdant hillsides ringed by snow-capped mountains, the green ankle-deep grasses dotted with dense clusters of black cattle herded by cowboys on horseback to keep the animals moving. Only in their last 100 days are the animals fed “4-K Granola,” a mix of grass, grains and corn. No drugs, no antibiotics. But no payments from BTB, apparently.
Back in Seattle, Owens had a few tricks up her sleeve, and wasn’t just online ordering and fresh-made sandwiches in the stores. Hitting the market in late 2014 there was supposed to be : a device called the Meat-O-Meter to provide an instant analysis of the protein and additives in beef, pork, chicken or lamb (a lot of Prozac in chicken, it turns out). Also an app called Butcher in Your Pocket to decipher all those unfamiliar cuts (Terres Major, Petite Shoulder).
Owens made sure that every one of BTB’s employees had an ownership stake. And she did roll with some punches: when plans for a new basketball arena forced her to close the BTB commissary in SoDo, she reconsidered the whole distribution model. “Turns out, we didn’t need our own infrastructure, at least not right now” Owens told me last summer. Instead, she planned to outsource storage and delivery to local companies with extra room on their trucks.
Trouble was, BTB was still losing $3 to $4 million a year. Half a million in the last publicly reported quarter alone.
Owens had staked out a niche that’s precarious (because it’s at the high end of the meat-marketing mountain) and depends on continued demand for healthy alternatives to supermarket chicken. A store selling fryers at $3.99 a pound and pork ribs at $9.99 isn’t going to compete with Safeway on price.
Premium butcher shops are still a luxury, “but I’m going to keep going,” Owens said with confidence back in June. “We had 280,000 unique customers, a one percent market share. People want this.”
Just not enough people.