Home > Campaigns > Meat Bill the Butcher CEO: J’Amy Owens

“OK Gabriel,” I say to myself, “Don’t make a fool of yourself now. Just take it easy, alright?” I’m waiting to interview Bill the Butcher CEO, J’Amy Owens. For some reason – or perhaps good reason – I’m as nervous as hell. She is, after all, one of the most successful business women in the whole of America. We’re sitting in the apartment below hers on Queen Anne Hill, waiting to go up. Things are running a little behind schedule; she’s taking a conference call. Of course she is -  she’s a CEO. We pass the time talking meat and quality cows, but really I’m worried about how much of a bumbling buffoon I’ll end up being.

It’s time.

“OK, mate, just pretend she’s any other person.”

We enter a gorgeous apartment and I shuffle through to the living room like a nervous school kid. Down the stairs comes J’Amy. She greets us with great charm and aplomb. I think I hold it together for about 12 seconds, and then the Brit in me escapes: I’m thanking her effusively for her kindness, for taking the time to see us, for anything I can think of. If I could apologize for something, I probably would. She offers us a glass of water. Foolishly I decline (my throat will be as parched as the Moroccan desert by the time we’re finished).  Again, that’s the Brit in me; I’m quite certain it would be rude to accept, or that it would cause her far too much trouble.

We sit down to begin. All the other interviews I previously did for this series lasted a few minutes, tops. This lasts twenty five. As an interviewee, J’Amy is incredibly engaged – and engaging. I quickly realize she is in no way just trying to get this over with. Indeed, her answers are full, expansive, and remarkably illuminating. I admit it, I’m quite spellbound. OK so she’s been in marketing and retail all her life, but it’s more than just a way with words; it’s a conviction. I learn this early on when she talks of her childhood on her family’s farm in North Dakota. She grew up surrounded by livestock. We start off with a few light-hearted get-to-know-you questions, but, as you’ll see, by the time we get to hobbies, things get serious. And this is a serious matter. It’s the future of our food system.

J’Amy what’s the first thing you do when your alarm goes off in the morning?
Ugh, I curse. I tend to stay up very late. I like to work long into the night. The alarm goes off usually because New York starts to call. They can’t help themselves.

And how do you take your coffee?
Always made in a French Press, Starbucks extra bold French Roast. I make it black as tar. I put a little organic half and half in, and then I fundamentally try and get my whole body into the cup!

If you were a crayon, what color would you be?
Black because I like to make one mark and I like it to be indelible; I like everyone to see it. And I like it to make the difference, and I like it to be the outline.

Summer or Winter?
Depends on where I am. If there’s only one season to choose, though, it has to be summer because I’m the original Barefoot Contessa.

Do you have any major hobbies?
I’m obsessed with figuring out how to take the pain I can see in life and create antidotes for it in business. And it’s my driving passion and need. Right now, I see a real pain in the small farmers and ranchers that have been excluded from working in big agribusiness, and I’ve watched them make less and less money each year. I’ve watched it my whole life, and it’s wrong. We need those farmers; we need them as stewards to the land. Without them doing that and raising animals for us locally, we’re toast as humans.

What’s your personal story in becoming involved with Bill the Butcher?
I’ve worked retail for about 30 years. I’ve developed 400 retail businesses in America, they’re in about 20,000 locations now. I was in the coffee business for a very long time. And when I heard the term “grass fed beef” in 2006, I knew in my knower that it was going to be like coffee – that meat would have a renaissance and revolution which would make it grow up and be as complex and as compelling as coffee. Because remember, in 1989 coffee was Fulgers in a can in a grocery store. And now it’s an $80 billion industry. So having had that as being a big part of my own journey, I knew when I heard this term that it was going to happen for me. And I thought, “I bet I could influence that.” So in 2006 I wrote the business plan for Bill the Butcher, and have endeavored to make it go ever since.

How does this compare to your previous work experience?
It’s quite similar in that both coffee and meat are commodities – they’re consumables; people use them every day. People buy them every day. People buy different qualities and quantities every day. And what we’re doing with meat is a lot like what happened to coffee. There was a new language of coffee introduced to consumers. What’s a latte? What’s a cappuccino? What type of bean is it? Where do they come from? How are they roasted? It turns out the same is true for meat: do you want a Shorthorn Brahman raised in open range in Nevada that was finished on clover or legumes? That is a different kind of flavor profile than a Belted Galloway that comes from the Prairie grasslands in central Illinois. And once you experience them side by each, and you can tell the difference, you will have a preference. And that preference will drive your behavior. But us American consumers have been Angus-ed to death by the grocery store. And we’re made to think that all meat is equal, or that it’s Prime, Choice, or Select, which really means nothing.

Could you tell us about how Bill the Butcher has simultaneously built “the world’s shortest supply chain” and a created new market place for meat?
We go the shortest distance to get enough meat to sell. So if we can get it from Washington, we do. If we have to get it from Montana, Idaho, OK. But why put a cow on a box cart and send it from Whatcom County to a feed lot and then have it slaughtered somewhere else, to then have it come back on a truck in a box? It adds layers of cost and carbon footprint. So our idea is creating the world’s shortest supply chain by knitting together small farms and ranchers that really cannot sell to grocery stores, because they’re too small. The big conglomerates don’t give them the time of day. Our market place, then, is above the farmer’s market and below the grocery stores. So we’ve created a new supply and we’ve created a new market at the same time. And I think that’s what people will talk about when they write about this business. Yes, we brought back the neighborhood butcher shop, and isn’t that groovy and cool. But behind that, the thing that really makes it work, is the distribution and the idea of how to coalesce a new supply chain.

What are your thoughts on Jolkona’s Eat Local, Give Global campaign and its partnership with the Bill the Butcher stores?
Well I’m horrified, as I’m sure we all are, by what I watch and read on the news. There is an inequality in how food is distributed around the planet, as well as an inequality in where food is grown. And you’re addressing that in places where there is perhaps the most need, and I truly have such respect for you. We’re doing this on a local scale; you’re doing it on a global scale. In many ways, though, our philosophies are a dead match.

Local food, sustainable farming, grass fed beef: these have been dubbed as “megatrends.” Are these indeed just megatrends, or is there more to it than that this, is there more meat on the bone, as it were?
Well I’ll say this: it’s much better to be a trend than a fad. The truth is that when 46 million people are doing it at once, it’s a megatrend. You see the organic food market has grown 100% in volume year after year for the past 20 years. And it is the only food sector in the business that is growing. The rest of them are flat. So that’s a big indication that more people are leaning in this direction. And listen, the barometer is Walmart: when Walmart was forced to put in an organic food section, that said to me, “OK, we’re really at the tipping point here.” Because they serve a customer base that is considered low income, but the demand for organic milk was unprecedented; they couldn’t stem the tide. Of course, our desire is for these trends to become normality, but all things that become “standard” start out as the “irreverent upstart.”

OK, so if you were a cut of meat, which would you be?
Depends from which animal! I think I would be the hanging tender on a cow. It is a very rare piece of meat and it connects all the other important pieces of meat on the animal.

If I gave you a herd of cattle, where would you hide it?
I’d hide it in plain sight on our family’s farm in North Dakota.

3 words to describe natural grass fed beef:
Vital. Delicious. Required.

The Eat Local, Give Global campaign is all about raising money to empower and educate women farmers in Sudan with sustainable farming techniques. We’re running the campaign in partnership with Bill the Butcher and its six shops in and around Seattle. Donate online, or go directly to your local shop, meet the friendly butchers themselves, and donate there.

Check out Laura Kimball’s launch post, or go the campaign page for more details.

 

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