How Organic Is Seattle's New "Organic" Butcher?
"William and I met at Shuckers and became lovers."
J'Amy Owens is telling the story of Bill the Butcher, a new chain of Pacific Northwest butcher shops. The story begins with William Von Schneidau, her lover, riding his motorcycle through the tiny farming communities of Eastern Washington.
"He's charming," Owens laughs, picturing him in the empty space over my right shoulder. "He's a huge outdoorsman, and he would get on his motorcycle and explore the state, by himself. And he would meet all these small suppliers, small farmers and ranchers, and he started sewing up this small supply chain—this endless web of love—of farmers and ranchers who were local. He would see a farmer: He's got plenty of grass that's fenced—why doesn't he have cows on it?"
Bill the Butcher is now open in Madison Valley, Laurelhurst, Woodinville, and Redmond. Along with the ability to convert farmers into ranchers, and ranchers into organic ranchers, company founder Von Schneidau boasts meat expertise: "I've been in the meat business since I was 14," he says. His consulting firm, CORE (www.coreseed.com), offers "Restaurant Profit Optimization," "Specialty Food Marketing," and "Green Packaging Programs." According to his bio, he has directed "the production cooking for 12,000 daily casino visitors," he's been an executive sous-chef at a four-star hotel, and he's "distributed over 30 million dollars in proteins" in the wholesale meat industry.
Owens is the CEO of Bill the Butcher and a professional retail consultant—she helped Starbucks open its first stores outside of Seattle. She has the backing of a well-capitalized publicly held company and decades of retail savvy. Her client list includes Nike, McDonald's, Jenny Craig, Sears, and Cinnabon. She gives motivational speeches at retail conventions and was recently named one of the "25 Most Influential People in Retail" by an industry group. According to the aromatherapy handbook The Fragrant Mind, Owens has specialized in "aroma-psychology," i.e., the scenting of retail outlets. Aroma is "one of the best ways to influence the customer that's legal," she says; she will design a customized retail scent for around $20,000.
"William's the steak and I'm the sizzle in our partnership... I can't tell you what to buy and how to cook it," Owens says, "but William can, all the livelong day."
William Von Schneidau vouches for the quality of Bill the Butcher's meat. According to the signage above Bill the Butcher's meat cases, the beef, pork, lamb, veal, goat, chicken, fish, and game are all "certified organic and natural."
But there's one thing Von Schneidau and Owens won't share, and that's the names of the putatively organic ranches that supply the shops. "But if we get to know [the ranchers] and we actually know them—we actually know them by their first names, we talk to them every day—that's good enough for us," says Owens. "We have the relationships, and that's good enough to have source verification that we trust."
Von Schneidau says that the names of the farms aren't important to his clients: "We don't want to confuse the consumer getting into too many 'this farm, that farm' things." Within the next six months, he says, the Bill the Butcher supply chain will be solidified, and then they'll consider revealing sources to their customers. Meanwhile: "If I did a blind test with you, and we served a top sirloin from five different farms... nobody will notice the difference anyway."
Jill Lightner, food writer and editor of Edible Seattle, disagrees. Vehemently. "There's no excuse for anything other than a completely transparent supply chain in our food system," she says. "It's what a consumer should expect. It's impossible to tell whether a label means something without a consumer devoting an absurd amount of time... This is exactly why transparency in sourcing is the only thing that matters. If you know the ranch, you can visit the ranch, see the animals, and ask questions. If you don't know the ranch, you're relying on a marketing department."
The cows are from "as close as we can get them," according to Owens. "If it were being raised across the street and the specs were right, we'd buy them." She will say that the meat comes from as far as Colorado and Nevada (a 20-hour motorcycle ride).
According to Owens and Von Schneidau, some of the meat is USDA certified organic and some is certified natural—a certification monitored by ranchers themselves, not the USDA. Then some is what Von Schneidau calls "beyond organic"—certified as neither, but "grass-fed and sustainably ranched" and personally checked. Von Schneidau says, "My specs to [the ranchers] are 'x, y, z,' and we get as close to that as we can to call it 'Bill the Butcher.'"
But recently at both the Woodinville store and the Madison Valley store, everything was being sold as certified organic. When asked which ranch a flank steak came from and what the cow ate, the young butcher at the Woodinville store replied, "Well, it's not like I can ask this steak where it came from, you know. But I can tell you that everything here is local and organic."
When the butchers at Bill the Butcher in Laurelhurst describe what is sold at all of the stores as a "scavenger chicken," they tell of how the farmer lets the baby chicks out into the forest, and how they nest and fend for themselves, and how the farmer walks through the trees and finds them wherever they've nested when it's slaughter time.
But Von Schneidau admits, "Scavenger chicken is just a nickname—it doesn't really mean anything. We just came up with that name to say to people that it wasn't a store-bought chicken."
The chicken farm is the one source that Bill the Butcher is forthcoming about: Dog Mountain Farm in Carnation. David Krepky, co-owner of Dog Mountain, says, "Yeah, I told them not to use the word 'scavenger,' because they're not." The chickens are kept in an indoor/outdoor pen and given feed to supplement whatever bugs and grass they find in the outdoor part.
Dog Mountain Farm's chickens are highly regarded, sustainably and humanely raised heirloom chickens. But Bill the Butcher's butchers also claimed that the Dog Mountain Farm chickens were certified organic. "No," says Krepky, "they're not organic. The organic feed comes from Canada, and it's like twice as expensive." Are they certified natural? "Nope," says Krepky, "neither. They're just good chickens."
Does Krepky know that Bill the Butcher is selling the chickens as organic? "Yeah, I've seen it, and I've told them it's not... not to do that. But they label what they do."
Does Von Schneidau know that Bill the Butcher is selling nonorganic Dog Mountain Farm chickens as organic? "Well, we do have organic chickens—we get those from another farm." He says the misrepresentation was a "mistake" and "yes, absolutely, a failure in our training. I haven't taken all of [the butchers] around to the farms yet—I'm slowly doing that."
Recently, a Nicky USA Farms truck was seen leaving the Madison Valley store. Nicky USA Farms, based in Oregon, confirms that Bill the Butcher is a client. They also confirm that their meat is neither certified organic nor certified natural, in spite of Bill the Butcher's claims that what they're selling is all "certified organic and natural." Von Schneidau says that Nicky USA sells "certain things like quail or venison, caribou and bear, things that go back into a whole different exotic category... that I can't get, that farmers up this way just aren't doing." Nicky USA also sells beef, pork, lamb, veal, and all the other meats Bill the Butcher claims to source from organic ranches that the company refuses to name.
Asked why the consumer should believe in the quality of unnamed meat sources, Owens says, "Well, 'buyer beware,' honestly. In any consumer proposition, you have to trust the person you're buying from." However, in her retail motivational speeches (which can be viewed on YouTube), she exhorts retailers to focus on the customer's emotional experience and not the products themselves: "The purpose under every single transaction is personal. They're not buying the shampoo, they're buying the feeling—they want to take home the feeling... That's the reason they're there."
Bill the Butcher's marketing and in-store signage explicitly state "Certified Organic and Natural Beef, Lamb, Veal, Goat, Cheese, Fish, Chicken, Pork, Game" (its website says "only locally sourced and ethically raised meat"). When asked, butchers at two locations said, "Everything in the case is organic."
The first Bill the Butcher outlet opened less than a year ago; the other three followed almost immediately. Owens is currently looking at real estate for the next wave of Bill the Butcher expansion. Recent food-retail trends reflect an explosion in the organic and local sector of the market—Owens says that organics are currently the "only growth category in food." Riding its increased popularity, investors in Owens's company have driven her share price from a penny per share when she bought a controlling interest in 2009 to $3 per share in a 2010 SEC filing—a return of over $11 million on her $37,100 investment, in just under a year. Bill the Butcher customers pay 10 to 20 percent more than at comparable local butcher shops, although no other local shops claim to sell solely certified organic and certified natural meats.
As Owens says in one of her motivational speeches, "If you pick your niche, you get rich."