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Bill the Butcher bets on local appeal over organic

After a costly personal and professional break-up, the co-founders of local meat purveyor Bill the Butcher are finally moving on. What's next?
Steak at Bill The Butcher

Steak at Bill The Butcher Ronald Holden

J'Amy Owens

J'Amy Owens Ronald Holden

The psychodrama surrounding a small chain of Seattle butcher shops is moving forward.

Bill The Butcher (a publicly traded company, very rare for such a small enterprise) reached a settlement two weeks ago with its co-founder, the butcher William von Schneidau, who had sued J'Amy Owens (Bill the Butcher's co-founder and his one-time girlfriend) for breach of contract. The protracted legal wrangling had theatened to bring down the company.

Terms of the settlement are not yet public, and von Schneidau (who now operates BB Ranchbutcher shop at the Pike Place Market) told Crosscut this weekend, "I do not wish to comment." 

Meantime, Owens, a retail guru who has created stores for Starbucks and Nike chains, has taken over as CEO and chief financial officer of Bill The Butcher. Earlier this year, she hired a new financial consultant, Bill Watson of Finance 500With an avalanche of legal costs, uncertainty and bad publicity behind her, Owens feels she can move ahead with new stores and a national online roll-out.

Watson's firm will help restructure the company's debt and find the bridge capital to move forward. "Once we get the restructuring of the company completed, and solve a few other operational issues," Watson said, "I look forward to rolling the BTB concept out with J'Amy on a national basis."

Meanwhile, Bill The Butcher closed two of its six stores in the last few months: one in Old Bellevue and another in Madison Park that didn't have enough parking. Replacing those will be a store in Wallingford on Stone Way and one in Edmonds. Shops in Woodinville, Redmond, Laurelhurst and Magnolia remain open.

The company's 12,000-square-foot commissary, on the other hand, is in the cross-hairs of the new sports arena planned for the SoDo area and will be closed. And the company's chief butcher, Michael Laroche, has resigned. 

But with Watson's involvement, there are plans for a web site that will allow consumers across the country to order meat from Bill The Butcher, similar to the way online orders are placed at Salumi Artisan Cured Meats. In addition to the software, a major issue holding back interstate sales of meat is passing the appropriate FDA inspections. Watson says the company will soon announce the involvement of a company — "an über-vendor" —   with significant expertise in these issues.

Transparency, the ability to identify the specific provenance of Bill The Butcher's products, has been a concern for the company, especially after a critical article in The Stranger on the owners being tight-lipped about which specific ranches provide their meat. But Owens is convinced that the most important story is that the meat does come from local ranchers and farmers.

"Local trumps so-called organic every time," Owens told the Eater Seattle blog. "We know every one of our suppliers, and together we're going to change the way America eats."

The public data suggests that Owens is running out of time. There's less cash on hand than ever, and the projects she and Watson envision are costly. If Owens is right, however, there's pent-up consumer demand for healthy meat and support for locally grown food. 

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Sep 18, 3 p.m. Inappropriate

Last year, I got a steak from them (one of many -- I'm a regular there) and had a conversation about where it came from. Turned out it was a ranch in a part of Oregon that I'm quite familiar with. They gave me the contact info for their distributor, and that guy set me up to visit the ranch.

It was about 25 miles from the nearest paved road, in a spot that looked a lot like the set of Bonanza. I had been near the ranch before, so I knew the area pretty well. A good friend of mine had ancestors who were among the founders of what's now a ghost town out there, and another ancestor who had mined gold on a nearby mountain. He still has a receipt from the San Francisco Mint, dated 1906. All that's left of the ghost town is a few mailboxes and a barn that looks like it's ready to fall down.

We got to the ranch, and found a woman in her mid-20s, her younger brother, and a family friend hanging out in the living room, no doubt with a shotgun under the couch just in case. (If the tables were reversed, that's how I'd do it. After all, who are these people from Seattle anyway?) We had a long, friendly conversation. The woman was a former beauty queen now "between jobs" and back out in the middle of nowhere and feeling more than a little uneasy about it, and her brother was a high school kid who seemed like he wanted to get outta there as soon as possible.

But they were really cordial, no tension at all. Eventually, the family friend came out and we chatted. Their dogs had just had puppies, and if we felt like taking one we'd be more than welcome to. We passed on the offer, but they were cute. Too bad the rancher was out of town, and his wife wasn't there. I'd have liked to talk a bit about the details of how they raise them, and so on. But it was a real thrill just to get out there in the wide open spaces. The eastern side of the Cascades in Oregon is unbelievably beautiful. The hipsters of Portland who never get past Bend or Hood River don't know what they're missing, which is just as well.

I did look up the article on The Stranger, and yeah, it was damaging as hell. What were they thinking?! But I was a customer later on, and never knew about the article until after I'd established the relationship. The Bill's in my neighborhood is hanging by a thread, and I hope they can come back. Good folks in the stores, anyway. I hope that J'Amy Owens has learned her lesson.

NotFan

Posted Sun, Sep 23, 10:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Really? You want to meet your beef?

Good lord, you watch too much Portlandia.

Posted Mon, Sep 24, 9:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Wasn't a Portlandia thing. (Not a fan of the show, by the way. The first one about the chicken was funny, but then it got too strange.)

I was in there one day and asked where something came from, and when the guy gave the location it was a place in Oregon I visit a lot. I was headed down there again anyway, so I thought why not see if I could drop in. Turned out the ranch was on one of my favorite roads in the area, in a place I'd always wanted to see more of.

So it wasn't like wanting the steer's biography. I had literally driven down a particular road a couple times before, looked out of the truck and said, "Wow, I wonder what it would be like to live out there." This was just a chance to get a closer look at out-West valhalla. Very few Portlandia types have the first clue where we were. To them, anything east of Mt. Bachelor, the ski hill near Bend, might as well be on the moon.

On a related note, I just picked up a quarter-beef, i.e., a quarter of a steer, from a different rancher in the same area. Half burger, the other half split evenly between roasts and steaks. Grass-fed, finished the last 45 days on barley grown on the ranch, i.e., not a feedlot.

I've ridden on the place on horseback. Didn't meet the steer I'll be eating, but I know the people and their land. Total price, including slaughter and wrapping: $4 a pound. And it's a hell of lot better than anything at the grocery store, that's for damn sure. How do I know? Because this is the second year I bought it.

NotFan

Posted Thu, Oct 4, 10:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Not Fan, you didn't really say it, but you seem to be saying that without a real "Bill" who knows his meats, and has strong butcher skills, "Bill the Butcher" is just a marketing shop depending on markeing more than that ownership/skill/intensity that we'd rather have. Yes or no?

Posted Wed, Sep 19, 8:27 a.m. Inappropriate

I wanted to like Bill the Butcher when they came to Madison Valley--a butcher shop with non-factory-farmed meat seemed like a great idea. The store didn't gel in our neighborhood, as far as I could tell--it was usually empty. I rarely went in because, while the staff were friendly, they turned over so rapidly that it was never a familiar face at the counter. And they didn't seem to have much information about the meat they were selling, they didn't seem passionate about it, they couldn't say whether the sausage had nitrates, and that gave me the sense (rightly or wrongly) that the store's image was more image than substance. Also, that neighborhood has a lot of lunch trade. I always thought that Bill the Butcher might take off there if they'd had more to offer in the way of lunch and snack food, and done a better job of retaining staff with a genuine passion for the business.

Posted Sun, Sep 23, 10:15 p.m. Inappropriate

Their mistake: no ownership presence.

Butchers imply owners, skilled tradespeople, not marketing gurus who just want to make a buck on a sizzle and a trend towards natural and organic.

Gotta walk the walk, and know the mooo from the BS.

Posted Thu, Sep 20, 12:04 p.m. Inappropriate

As it turned out, Carol, the Madison Park store didn't survive the torn-up streets and lack of parking. Management has identified staff training as a critical element in building customer satisfaction. Whether they can improve service and build loyalty before the cash runs out is the big question.

Posted Thu, Sep 20, 11:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Bill the Butcher has been "coming soon!" on Stone Way for at least a year now...we'll believe it when we see it.

Seneca

Posted Sat, Sep 22, 7:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Ronald, i'm sure the road work on Madison didn't help! As someone who works in the neighborhood I agree that's been a hassle at times. But how do you identify it as the main factor in Bill the Butcher's failure to take off there? A couple of other new places started during the past couple of years have done very well in that same district (Ines and Luc, a bakery and a bistro). There's a lot of foot traffic all day long, and still a lot of parking within a block or two, even with the road work.

Posted Sun, Sep 23, 10:10 p.m. Inappropriate

when a couple of p/r people decide to start a company called Bill The Butcher, you know it's just hype and silly, and not real.

Kind of a City Planners' type of Butcher if you will ... contrived.

Posted Mon, Sep 24, 8:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Nah, just another boutique. Look, if people will pay 3 bucks for a cup of coffee that costs a quarter to make, why not uber-luxe beef? Their stuff really does taste better. Is it enough better to justify the premium? Each to their own.

NotFan

Posted Thu, Oct 4, 10:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Agree, and the answer is sometimes, but that's why I go to Whole Foods if I want to pay the premium. Stocking up a freezer for a side of beef makes more sense. Then I can get some halibut and venison too.

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