Seattle-based entrepreneur J’Amy Owens talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about her chain of Bill the Butcher shops, her plans for expansion and her ambition to build a national brand.
With a client list that includes renowned retail chains such as Applebee’s, Bank of America, Blockbuster, McDonald’s, Nike, Saks Fifth Avenue and Sears—to name a few—J’Amy Owens has certainly built a reputation as a retail marketer extraordinaire. A sought-after motivational speaker, she has also been featured and quoted in numerous national magazines and appeared on TV multiple times. In 2000, an industry group named her one of the “25 Most Influential People in Retail.”
Speaking of her latest venture, Bill the Butcher, a chain of butcher shops in the Pacific Northwest, Owens proclaims: “We are going to be the Starbucks of meat.” If anyone is qualified to say that, Owens is. She helped the iconic coffee chain expand outside its Seattle hometown to a neighborhood near, well, just about everybody.
Opportunist: J’Amy, your retail background is quite impressive. Please tell us about it.
J’Amy: I’ve been in retail for about 30 years, during which time I’ve had the privilege and the luck to work with great retailers all over the world—personally developing 400 retail and marketing prototypes in thousands of applications. That’s kind of my thing. [Laughs] I previously had a company called The Retail Group, which was responsible for rolling out businesses. My current company, J’Amy Owens Group, is a consulting firm that develops retail businesses mostly for Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies.
Opportunist: What sparked your interest in retail?
J’Amy: I originally studied architecture but soon discovered I liked the architecture of actually developing the look and feel for a store and then understanding how that worked. Early on, I had some amazing clients and got to do some dream projects and learned the business of retail by inventing a new store or collection of merchandise. I really loved it.
Opportunist: What drives you?
J’Amy: I’m a creative soul. I love the process of creation. I get my kicks out of making something from nothing. That’s where I live, intellectually. I like the idea of improving upon things without having to accept the status quo, so I guess you can say I’m a rebel and a revolutionary at heart. I like solving puzzles and going into the marketplace—or market space—and thinking what would the opposite of that look like?
J’Amy: At first glance, it doesn’t seem like an obvious transition. But it made sense to me, which is indicative of the fact that I must be crazy! [Laughs] I heard the term grass-fed beef in 2006, and I believed that was something I should investigate. It’s funny that this was a relatively new term in our society because cows had always been raised on grass—until the ‘50s and ‘60s when agribusiness shipped them off to the feedlot.
I read [Michael Pollan’s book] The Omnivore's Dilemma, which is a fantastic read, and I thought Oh my God, is this true? He’s the “father” of the movement to return to grass-based ranching. I did more research and saw feedlots for myself, and I immediately wrote the business plan [for Bill the Butcher].
Opportunist: What is the rationale for feedlots vs. pastures?
J’Amy: Feedlots can house a lot of cows. Plus, cows are corn-fed in feedlots, which is incredibly cheap, and they gain about three pounds daily—mostly water weight, though. There is a lot of pain in the mainstream agribusiness, however, for animals and humans.
Opportunist: How so?
J’Amy: It defines environmental degradation. Each cow produces about 50 pounds of manure a day, so the cows are basically standing in a giant wastewater sewer that is running into our water supply. It doesn’t make any sense.
Opportunist: That sounds terribly inhumane.
J’Amy: Yes, raising animals in confinement without letting them run freely is very ugly. The jury is finally out on all this stuff. For the cow to survive the feedlot, it’s so amped-up on antibiotics. It would die in the feedlot environment if weren’t given drugs. There is also hysteria when the cows are transported to a facility where they are slaughtered en masse. They are distraught and panicked and toxins are dumped from their liver into their blood supply. We have no idea what this does to us humans at the top of the food chain. It’s a huge risk. We disagree with that and we are doing something different.
Opportunist: How do you do it differently?
J’Amy: My answer was OK, let’s just find farmers with the same ethics and values we have and support them and their product. So, that’s what we do.
We have returned to a natural process that is basically as nature intended. It’s an ancient method, of course, but we nearly forgot how to do it. Just like the coffee business, meat is a commodity—whether it’s beef, pork, chicken or lamb—and it’s getting changed by not only how we source it and whom we buy it from but also in how we sell it. We are really fussy about the quality and the input that we have.
We are on a mission to save the world one steak at a time. [Laughs] It’s a very serious mission and, in a way, we have created a brand-new industry.
Opportunist: What are the similarities between your concept and that of Starbucks?
J’Amy: I called us the Starbucks of meat because we decided, all right, let’s bring back the neighborhood butcher shop. Before the coffee bar revolution it was just Folgers in a can. I have applied the same principles I deployed while working in the coffee business. The neighborhood butcher shop concept disappeared long ago and never came back. We haven’t simply created a public butcher shop—we have created a way to buy and distribute meat outside the current meat distribution system in America. The farmers and ranchers we deal with are very small—they could never sell to Whole Foods, for example, because they don’t have the volume—and we are able to buy meat from them and take it to our commissary in our own trucks and minimally process it and then distribute it to our own shops. We are as vertical as we can be for such a small company.
We have put more than $1 million into the local farming community during the recession. I don’t see a lot of other people doing it, and I’m really proud of that.
Opportunist: How has the consumer reacted?
J’Amy: They came in and discovered something they liked. We are starting to become well known among those who can be described as people who care so much about what they’re eating that they buy a steak from us and go home and actually take a photograph of it before they cook it.
Opportunist: No kidding?
J’Amy: Customers actually email us the photograph! [Laughs] It happens every day. If you look at our Facebook page, you will see that we have 5,000 people friending us and constantly sending us photos of our meat that they cook every day. It blows my mind.
The Seattle Mariners [professional baseball team] are going to buy our meat because they want their athletes to be in topnotch shape. Dr. Mark Adams, in Bellevue, Wash., has prescribed our meat to his patients as “the only meat to eat.”
Opportunist: Do you believe social media is helping you generate business?
J’Amy: Yes. Thank goodness for social media. We just got over 1,900 followers the other day on Twitter.
We’ve never had money for formal ads. We are very community based and we do community sponsorships, such as the Bill’s Tenderizers Little League baseball team, barbecue contests and health fairs. We also provide meat for school fundraisers and we auction off dinners for charity. That’s the difference that we are making.
We are such foodies. Our guys are constantly making pâtés and salami and all these gorgeous sausages and we photograph that, too, and put it online moment to moment. We are really into sharing what we do.
Opportunist: Is there a sizable market for your product?
J’Amy: You can set your watch by meat consumption—beef, chicken and pork—for both men and women over the last 25 years. It’s a consistent trend line, with a few minor peaks and valleys, but meat eaters consume the same number of pounds year in and year out.
Opportunist: How much is that?
J’Amy: Men typically consume 115 pounds, and women consume about 85 pounds annually. That’s just a fact. We are obviously after part of the $500 billion grocery market share.
Opportunist: Besides being organic, what sets your meat apart from the competition?
J’Amy: The freshness of our meat is like no one has ever had. We cut every piece to customer specification and wrap it in paper. The butcher puts it right in front of their face and lets them guide the knife. This is great for a family when, say, a child wants a thin steak and Dad wants a thicker cut. Nothing is precut and laying out there drying up. Most meat is four weeks old by the time it gets to the grocery store. There are no Styrofoam trays or plastic wrappers. Our point of view is all those polymers and plastics are leeching into the meat. We are always going to be the David to that Goliath, I guess, but we point out the differences and let people decide for themselves.
Opportunist: How would you describe your shops?
J’Amy: I like the notion that what we’re doing, on the face of it anyway, is a cute little butcher shop—but it’s radical. The atmosphere is very Ranch ‘N Roll. [Laughs] It’s a lively environment, with Rock ‘N Roll music playing. The outside is painted historic brick red—a real foodie color—and the inside is brown and very much like a man cave that’s very masculine and very carnal. I think it’s very sexy and stylish. The lighting is good, and you can tell when you walk in that we’re in on the joke—that we get it. It’s not your father’s butcher shop. [Laughs]
The minute our customers walk in the door a butcher greets them and asks what they want to eat and guides them through how to cook everything. A farmer book hangs from our butcher’s altar, featuring stories about all of our local suppliers and vendors. We want our customers to understand that they are helping local farmers when they buy steak from us. They are voting with their local food dollar, which really makes a difference.
I actually set out to make a store entirely from recycled, renewed and reused materials and challenged our team to do it with very little cash. We tested that cleverness by seeing if we could make something warm and soulful and inviting and hip and efficient. Our butcher shops are literally made from found objects. One day we saw a fence collapsed in a giant pile on the freeway, so we stopped and got it and made fixtures from it. There was so much retail closure in the recession, so we buy used equipment and go to auctions and find objects like walk-in cooler panels.
Opportunist: How much does it cost to open a shop?
J’Amy: Our shops are opened with $100,000, including inventory. People in retail say, "No, you can't do that", but we have created a very realistic and practical green construction model.
Opportunist: Tell us about a typical day in your line of work.
J’Amy: Oh, let’s see. I am the chief money raiser, the CEO, the chief cook and bottle washer. [Laughs] My days consist of primarily making the boat float, so to speak, and getting the financing completed. I also scout for locations and hold meetings with our teams.
Opportunist: How many people do you have on staff?
J’Amy: We are a very small company, with less than 30 people on staff, and it’s very hands-on. Every Wednesday night the whole company gathers for operations meetings where everybody reports back. I spend a fair amount of time on investor relations and letting investors know how it’s going. I also talk with the press and oversee the marketing and advertising and, yes, my days are full.
Opportunist: Do you have any Bill the Butcher merchandise or apparel in the works?
J’Amy: We have some hats and they are very popular. We are getting T-shirts printed up with saying after saying, such as “Reduce Your Carbon Footprint,” “Local Meat and One Really Fresh Butcher,” and “You Can’t Beat Bill’s Meat.” As you can tell, this is where we don’t take ourselves seriously. [Laughs] We just have fun with it. Our marketing guru Alan Brown and I have been writing these slogans for years. We also have marquees outside our shops and the slogans are so successful that people stop and take photos of them with their phones and email them to us. They bring in new customers all the time because passersby are so amused by our signage.
Opportunist: How many outlets does the company have at present, and what are your plans for expansion?
J’Amy: We have five operating, with three more under construction. Two are opening in the next four weeks. We think we can put 20 stores in this market and then go to Northern California, Southern California, Austin and Dallas.
Opportunist: What does the company hope to accomplish in 2012?
J’Amy: Continuing to improve our business model is our goal for 2012.
We also want to secure long-term financing, which is in the works, and we plan to open another seven or eight stores this year. My dream is to roll this out and I see no reason why it shouldn’t become a national brand. The gratifying part of this business is we get calls every day from people all over the country asking, “When are you opening in our town?”
Opportunist: Do you have plans to franchise?
J’Amy: Lots of people have approached us and asked us to franchise, but until I feel we have this down to a science I don’t want to pretend to tell somebody else how to run it. At two years old, we are still very young. We have the best point-of-sale systems in the world, which we have modified for public compliance and for the meat business, but we have a long way to go. I am not opposed to area licensing, but we will cross that bridge way down the road.
Opportunist: Where do you see the company in five years?
J’Amy: We will have at least 150 stores, if not 175. We will be in Chicago, Austin, Northern California, Southern California, and on our way to becoming a national brand.
Stock Symbol: OTCBB: BILB
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.