When I first heard of Bill The Butcher - the butcher shop in Woodinville, WA not the character Daniel Day Lewis portrayed in The Gangs Of New York - I was slogging around in the mud on Dog Mountain Farm. It was a one shop operation that had started selling the Dog Mountain Redbro Chickens. The Swinery in West Seattle was only a few months old, and it was already experiencing challenges with it’s whole, locally raised animals, no box meat operating philosophy. If selling meat in this old-fashion way wasn’t an instant hit in the ‘big’ city, I wondered how it would work in the sticks.
Several months later, I heard about Bill The Butcher again from a friend who is a specialty food distributer throughout the Pacific Northwest. It seems that “Bill” had opened a second shop in the Laurelhurst area of Seattle, and two others were in the planning stages. By this time The Swinery had taken two steps back, and although I felt Laurelhurst was an odd area for an artisan butcher shop, - it’s near the University of Washington campus so a lot of students live in the area - I thought that having three or four outlets for ‘real’ meat and poultry might provide enough volume for a ‘whole, locally raised animals’ operating policy. I decided to give the place a look see.
The Laurelhurst location was small, tucked away, and without much parking. While ‘local,’ ‘sustainable,’ and ‘organic,’ were stressed by the signs and the employees, it was clear that they didn’t have a problem selling ‘boxed meat,’ and since some of their meat was sourced from Colorado, ‘local’ was apparently ‘relative.’ They weren’t exactly 100% transparent about their sources, but the man behind the meat counter did inform me that they used Carlton Farms pork from Oregon. This is a fairly decent size pork operation, and that has always given me pause. I asked him why they didn’t use Pure Country Pork from Ephrata, WA, since it was a small family run operation, and it was closer than Carlton, OR. The name didn’t seem to ring a bell with him, which I found odd. I did get the spiel about the pending expansion plans. I bought some house-made sausage and some of their sliced, smoked ham. I wasn’t impressed with either, so although I visited several more times, I found nothing enticing enough to cause me to open my wallet.
April had rolled around, and given my habit of driving down to Portland every two to three weeks throughout the spring and summer to visit the Farmers’ Markets, and buy meat, I didn’t give much more thought to Bill the Butcher. That is until I returned from Portland and found out about Mathew Richter’s piece entitled Mystery Meat: How Organic Is Seattle's New "Organic" Butcher? published in The Stranger, one of Seattle’s free weeklies, last week. The article claims that “Bill the Butcher” is somewhat less than transparent about all the sources of the meat it offers for sale, and is engaging in some false, and blatantly deceptive, claims about how some of the meat is produced. Conventionally raised meat sold as organic or natural; have we returned to the days when we need to worry about buying a ‘pig in a poke’!!!
Even more disturbing to me was the fact that “Bill the Butcher” was not actually an artisan butcher shop, but a ‘scalable’ business model in which Bill and his marketing consultant(s) exploit a niche in the current market by selling the romance of locally raised livestock and old fashion butchery, or at least the appearance of such. The ‘business decision’ not to reveal the sources of all his meat until “the Bill the Butcher supply chain will be solidified,” sounds like it will happen only when “Bill the Butcher” has enough volume to secure exclusive contracts with it suppliers, or never revealing the sources and doing a bait and switch, thus insuring significant profits by recreating a supply chain that leads to farmers getting screwed and livestock being treated inhumanely all for the sake of cheap, tasteless, and unhealthy meat. I guess this means there really is No Exit!!!I have a few more thoughts on this matter in A Wolf In Organic Beef's Clothing?