Why Eat Local: A Conversation with Jen of Bottle & Bone
Enter our Valentine's Day Giveaway for you and your love to attend a sausage making class at Bottle & Bone, as Jen said, "The couple that grinds together, stays together!" Details at the end of this post.
Nestled in a cozy corner of beautiful Uptown Birmingham is a butcher shop, unlike any you have ever seen. It is easy to spot by the unique, Viking style architecture displayed outside the entrance. Once you step inside your senses are filled with the smell of delicious meats cooking, your eyes captured by the magnificent offerings of ales and wines, and your ears filled with warm greetings and laughter that flood the modern, yet rustic restaurant. As you make your way past the beautifully displayed meats in the meat case, you will stumble upon an old world style butcher shop, complete with animals hanging and pig heads in the corner. How they manage to have a rustic butcher shop kept in such clean, pristine order is enough to impress even the harshest of critics.
I had the privilege to sit down with Jen Barnett, the owner of Bottle & Bone, and have a Happy Hour beer over fun conversation. I asked Jen what her inspiration for Bottle & Bone was.
"I had a little grocery store called Freshfully and we did all local food, 100% local, primarily produce and we also did meat. The meat was really popular, we sold it packaged and frozen that's how the farmers had it delivered, but I always wanted to have a butcher department inside Freshfully."
Jen shared with me the struggles of owning Freshfully. Freshfully was an amazing spot located in Avondale where Jen sold mainly produce. One struggle was the shelf life of organic, local fruits and vegetables.
"Produce is really tough... when I got organic strawberries I had 24 hours to move them. Whereas, beef has a 45 day shelf life."
She went on to explain that store bought beef has traveled over long distances, been processed and frozen and saturated in "red" that never goes away, to give the appearance of freshness. The meat at Bottle & Bone is a much higher quality. Right now you can buy a butcher box for $99 which includes bacon, Joyce Farms Chicken, ribeyes, sausage and more. You get over 8 pounds of high quality meat. And you can rest assured knowing it all comes either straight from a local farmer or from a trustworthy source that has been researched and met the high standards to which Bottle & Bone holds.
"I loved my local farmers a lot and I was actually working on a concept to take Freshfully to a new level. I wanted to bring in vendors: a little baker, a little butcher and a little cheese person... I lost a lot of money trying to maintain Freshfully, but I loved it and I was super passionate about it. I wanted it to lead to the next thing. I started talking with the property managers of Uptown, after trying to put a butcher in Freshfully, and never being able to make it work. One day we came to view the property. I had been here once before, and at first I didn't feel it was my vibe. I was like this isn’t my vibe, I like old buildings, I like restoration projects, I like character and I definitely can't sell vegetables out of this place. Nobody's going to come down here to buy an eggplant."
That's when Jen's creativity kicked into high gear. She had always wanted to sell alcohol at Freshfully, but was turned down many times by the city.
"I was standing in the middle of Uptown, looking around and it just reminded me of Midtown Atlanta. Lots of businessmen in their 30s, 40s and 50s. I thought, I can sell meat and beer. It sort of came out of my mouth. Three days later I was in a meeting with the architects, it just happened instantly. Actually, this is an exclusive. Nobody has ever heard this. I went into the meeting thinking we were going to talk about logistics. I walked in and there were fourteen guys in the meeting and they were in work clothes! I was like alright let’s do it, I can’t believe this is happening!"
The day we spoke marked a year since Jen had met with her staff and made the decision to close Freshfully. I could see the passion she still has for making fresh, organic produce available to everyone.
I asked Jen about the Viking design style created by AppleSeed Workshop for her restaurant. She said they did way more than she could have ever conceived. Her vision behind the design was one of Viking ships, big burley men in sweaters around a long wooden table, a huge wood burning fireplace and an overall masculine feel. Although many of her big ideas were scaled down to fit the Uptown model, she was still beyond pleased with the finished design. She wanted to create something original. Different than the two main types of butcher shops in American cities. She did not want the traditional, classic, million year old butcher shop or the punk, butcher shop with sexy meat puns on every ad. She wanted something timeless. And she achieved it.
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Bottle & Bone is very focused on local, organic and sustainable food. Jen shared with me her unique experience in discovering why local food matters. While in business school, Jen was doing research on the economic reasons behind obesity in America. Through her research she discovered the issue of obesity in America could be solved if everyone ate locally sourced foods. She shared with me the importance of building relationships with your food suppliers. She picked up an ink pen from her desk.
"...if I tell you I made this pen, I made sure it wasn’t poisonous, I did chemistry tests on it and I tasted it and it is not poisonous. But, say, I am shipping the pen around the world. I would save five cents if the pen is poisonous. Let's say, I have kids and my responsibility is to my kids and I'm taking five cents away from my kids in order to sell a nonpoisonous ink pen. So, you can see, the more one-to-one you have as a consumer, the more beneficial it is."
This is a great example of why it matters to the consumer to eat locally sourced food. We build relationships and trust with the people we purchase our food from and are able to put faith in the products they provide us. Not to mention stimulating our local economy. It is not always practical, financially, to purchase local and organic 100% of the time. But, she hopes to educate people on the benefits of choosing local and organic foods and show that every little bit matters, while still being wise in her business decisions and building a successful restaurant.
I asked her why it matters to the Birmingham economy to eat local.
"We are one of the poorest states so you would rather your money stay here than go to California. Also, when it comes to conventional food the majority of the price of food is spent on marketing. This means your money goes to multiple things, such as advertisements. But if you buy from a farmer, some small marginal amount is marketing, in the sense of him coming to the market. When purchasing from corporations, most of the money you are paying goes to the shipping company, the advertisement agency, and packaging. All sorts of it is not for the food. Why would you want that?"
She brought up fast food restaurants. One in particular, has chicken and shrimp for $2.00.
"Think about your house. What would you have to do to make a plate of shrimp for $2.00? It would be shrimp on the molecular level, it would be things that have touched shrimp. Do you think fast food restaurants have some magic that they can make shrimp for $2.00? There must be a balance. It is trying to find the right point between I grew this by myself and $2.00 shrimp. It is also realizing that anything over $2.00 shrimp, to someone that might normally eat it, is progress."
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Jen Barnett is known around Birmingham as a social media guru. She is extremely talented and creative. I asked her for one piece of advice for all of us bloggers on improving our social media presence. Her response was brilliant.
"Do something original."
What a simple answer. And so true. It is obviously the rule she used for herself. Bottle & Bone is a unique restaurant built on original concepts by Jen and her incredible team.
Thank you, Jen for allowing me into your space and sharing so much of your story with me. Or, I should say the beginning of your story. There is much still to be written.
One of the many fun things offered by Bottle & Bone is butcher classes. On Valentine's Day we are giving away a free class to one lucky couple. You will learn to make sausage from some very talented and animated pros. Entires will be received from today, January 22 until midnight 11:59 PM February 13. The winner will be announced at 1:00 PM on Saturday, February 14. To enter...