Seattle Chicken Chain Mt. Joy Wants to Conquer the World, Then Save It – Eater Seattle

It’s a bright, windy fall day on Capitol Hill, and Robbie Cape has crouched down to futz with the legs on the inflatable tube man outside Mt. Joy, his food truck. “It’s not straight,” Cape says, making an adjustment before muttering, “That’ll have to do.”

Cape is a bald, middle-aged man with the infectious energy of a tech entrepreneur and the plastic-rimmed glasses of a tech entrepreneur. He worked at Microsoft before founding and then selling the family-scheduling app Cozi; he followed that up by co-founding the chatbot telemedicine startup 98point6 and serving as its CEO until the board replaced him in 2021. That’s an unusual resume for the operator of a fried chicken sandwich joint, but Mt. Joy is so much more than a food truck and a nearby brick-and-mortar restaurant. To hear Cape tell it, the inflatable tube man marks the beachhead of a chain that will one day have hundreds of locations. Mt. Joy already has a sleek website, an app, and a team that includes Ethan Stowell, Seattle’s most bankable restaurateur, who is a co-founder.

But Cape is dreaming even bigger: He envisions a future where Mt. Joy pressures the nation’s food-supply system to reform in a way that will improve conditions for livestock, raise wages for farmworkers, and even fight climate change. Oh, and at that point, Mt. Joy will be a billion-dollar company.

“When I started looking for my next gig after Cozi,” Cape tells Eater Seattle, “I wanted to work on companies that checked two boxes… Number one, the companies had to be multibillion-dollar opportunities — like, at scale, they could be valued at billions of dollars. And number two, that at that scale they could repair the world in a meaningful way.” This makes Mt. Joy possibly the most ambitious, audacious food business in Seattle. It’s certainly the most ambitious business that started in the parking lot of a former Starbucks.

After leaving 98point6, Cape was trying to figure out his next move, and he wasn’t thinking about restaurants. He was thinking about the environment. His research, which included watching the 2020 documentary Kiss the Ground, led him to focus on “regenerative agriculture,” a somewhat vague term that refers to a set of practices that advocates say are more in tune with nature and better for the planet than industrial farming methods.

Sometimes, those advocates for regenerative agriculture make grandiose claims. In Kiss the Ground, over a montage of climate change-related disasters, narrator Woody Harrelson says that there’s “a simple solution, a way to heal our planet and keep our species off the extinction list.” He goes on:

We call it soil, earth, or ground. And due to its vast scale and its ability to sequester immense quantities of greenhouse gases, it could just be the one thing that can balance our climate, replenish our freshwater supplies, and feed the world.

An inflatable tube man and a sign featuring two cartoon chickens.

Some decorations next to the Mt. Joy food truck
Harry Cheadle

Regenerative Organic Alliance, an organization that certifies farms as “Regenerative Organic” and therefore has to be more rigorous than Woody Harrelson, has a list of practices farmers should adopt to meet its standards. This includes crop rotation or the seasonal use of cover crops (rather than using a plot of land to grow only one thing, aka monoculture); tilling, or breaking the soil with a plow or other machine, as little as possible; raising livestock alongside crops; and not using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. The goal of all this is to maintain a healthy ecosystem of insects, worms, and fungus in the soil, which makes it more resistant to erosion, more able to hold water, and capable of sequestering carbon from the air, which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help fight climate change. To be certified by ROA, farms must pay their workers fairly and treat them well (a standard not all farms have lived up to). They must also care for their animals better than industrial farms do — allowing chickens to roam freely on pastures, for instance — which advocates say makes the meat taste better.

“The concept of regenerative agriculture, it set my brain on fire,” Cape says. “Here’s a methodology that is better for the farmer, better for the animals, better for the land. And it produces a product that’s better for the people. Why aren’t more people doing it?”

Cape set out to talk to regenerative farmers. One of them was Grant Jones, the owner of Hungry Hollow Farm in Shelton, a couple hours southwest of Seattle. “The big bottleneck is demand,” Jones tells Eater Seattle. “We need more people to buy our product; we need more people to care about what we’re doing.”

Eventually, the Mt. Joy founder talked to Joel Salatin, one of the country’s most famous regenerative farmers. “He’s like, ‘Robbie, if you want to get more farmers to farm this way, you need to launch a restaurant,’” Cape recalls of the conversation. “‘If you build demand for food that is grown this way, the supply will follow.’” (Salatin, who at one point was a sort-of spokesperson for the regenerative agriculture movement, is also a right-wing political eccentric who flouted pandemic lockdown rules. He has no association whatsoever with Mt. Joy.)

Cape initially rejected the idea because he knew nothing about the restaurant industry. But after conversations with friends and restaurant industry professionals, including Ethan Stowell — who owns How to Cook a Wolf, Rione XIII, and too many other restaurants to name — he gradually became convinced that a restaurant was the right path forward. Cape is an entrepreneur who believes, maybe unfashionably, that a for-profit business can make the world a better place. “For all of the issues I have with Elon Musk,” he says, “he showed the market that you could build a great car business worth a lot of money as an electric-vehicle company.” What Musk did to popularize electric cars, Cape could maybe do for chickens.

A door with a huge image of a fried chicken sandwich on it.

The facade of the Mt. Joy brick-and-mortar prior to its opening.
Harry Cheadle

Nationwide, there are a lot of entrepreneurs like Cape trying to disrupt the food industry for the better, whether that means investing in plant-based “meat” or lab-grown chicken; chickens and eggs that are labeled “regenerative” or “pasture-raised” are now commonplace in grocery stores and direct-to-consumer sites. In one sense, Cape is hopping on a trend; in another, he’s trying to accelerate it.

As Cape set out to develop Mt. Joy, he met with Stowell frequently to learn the restaurant business, and brought the restaurateur on as a co-founder. Cape also staged (the restaurant equivalent of working an unpaid internship) at two of Stowell’s restaurants, Victor’s Tavern and the Woodinville location of Ballard Pizza — the 54-year-old’s first-ever restaurant experience. “It was great! I loved it!” Cape says. “Restaurants are very often balancing on the tip of a needle, between organized and chaos. It’s amazing how they do it.” He has a scar on his arm from a pizza oven, which he is happy to show off.

So: Why chicken? From the very first meeting, Cape says, Stowell “intuited” that their venture should be a fried chicken restaurant. “It turns out that’s the right answer for a lot of reasons,” Cape says. For one thing, chicken, particularly fried chicken, is exploding in popularity. (There’s a Korean fried chicken place across the street from the Mt. Joy truck, and Dave’s Hot Chicken, a Nashville-style chain, opened on Capitol Hill the same week as the Mt. Joy restaurant.) Another reason has to do with the short lives of chickens. “Given that we’re building a new supply chain, it turns out that an animal with a relatively short gestation period and a relatively short lifespan is better, because it allows us to cycle up the supply chain faster,” Cape says.

Already, he says, Mt. Joy’s presence is encouraging local farms to produce regeneratively farmed chicken. Jones, of Hungry Hollow, has joined the company as a co-founder and chief agricultural officer, and Mt. Joy is using four other Western Washington farms to supply it with chickens. While a small farm might have to predict the appropriate amount of chickens to raise annually, having consistent preordering from a customer allows farms to invest in raising more birds. “Within a few months, we were able to get additional production out of them that they were not counting on producing,” Cape says, because Mt. Joy could commit to buying their chickens. (Regeneratively farmed chickens are expensive; Mt. Joy pays nearly $8 a pound for whole birds.)

The company has also recruited Mark Anderson, a farmer and the owner of Anderson Hay in Ellensburg, Washington. Anderson raises grass-fed beef cattle using regenerative methods, and next year will be raising chickens for Mt. Joy, early proof of Cape’s theory that he can create the supply chain he needs as his business grows. Anderson will be processing chickens as well; he says he can process tens of thousands of animals if Mt. Joy needs it. (As of mid-December, the company has used about 4,000 chickens total, Cape says.)

“I’m very, very aligned with Robbie, I think his vision and mission is spot-on,” says Anderson. “I don’t think he does anything he doesn’t deeply believe in… He’s a great visionary.”

A food truck with “Mt. Joy” on the side.

The Mt. Joy truck
Harry Cheadle

Mt. Joy’s first brick-and-mortar restaurant opened on December 1 on 11th Avenue and Pine Street, just across the street from Cal Anderson Park. If Cape’s dreams come true, that restaurant will be followed swiftly by others in Western Washington, then more in other regions, until one day Mt. Joy is as ubiquitous and numerous as Chipotle. (Cape is looking to expand to the East Side, though he says he needs to “raise additional capital” before any expansion.) At some point, Mt. Joy would become such a big buyer of chicken that it would have influence over how chickens are raised across a broader supply chain. “Our goal is to reach a scale where we can impact the entire industry,” Cape says.

If Mt. Joy achieves whatCape envisions — a daunting prospect — it will have to contend with the slippery nature of the word “regenerative.”

“A person can say, ‘I’m farming regeneratively,’ and you don’t really know exactly what that means,” says Melissa Spear, the executive director of Tilth Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes regenerative farming, among other food- and farming-related policies. As regenerative farming has become hip, large companies like General Mills have touted regenerative initiatives that stop well short of what advocates like Spear would like to see — General Mills promotes low- and no-till farming, “which is actually really important,” Spear says, but continues to use pesticides, which are generally frowned upon in the regenerative community.

One way to cut through the ambiguity around the term regenerative is the regenerative organic certification process, by which farms can get an outside stamp of approval. But many small and midsize farmers interested in these practices aren’t taking this route, Spear says, because it is expensive and time-consuming. “Part of what needs to happen in general is we need to make getting certified easier,” she says.

Mt. Joy hasn’t focused on getting its farms certified primarily due to cost, Cape says. “Our perspective is that we want to be completely transparent,” he says. “We don’t need the certification because we want to show you the farm.” (On the Mt. Joy website, you can see videos of the chickens in pastures.)

Spear isn’t necessarily satisfied with Mt. Joy’s current level of disclosure, however. She wants to know how much the company pays its workers, among other things — “total transparency.” (Cape says Mt. Joy offers a “very competitive wage,” benefits, and equity in the company after three months.)

If Mt. Joy ever did become so large and powerful that it could tell farmers how to raise chickens, Cape has already sketched out some ideas for what he would request of its future suppliers: He would ask them to raise the Freedom Ranger Color Yield, chickens specifically bred to live outside, and to put the birds on fresh pasture every day. “We want our chickens to live in their natural habitat and be intelligently incorporated into the farm ecosystem,” he says. This is better for the chickens and better for the soil, too: As the chickens scratch and peck at the earth and fertilize it with their manure, they improve the soil health.

Would those practices be enough for advocates like Spear to agree their chickens are “regenerative”? Maybe, maybe not.

Another question around regenerative farming is exactly how much carbon soil can sequester, and for how long. This is a highly technical matter and researchers are looking into it, but the planet-saving portrayal in Kiss the Ground is almost certainly too optimistic. (Spear calls the film “kind of like propaganda” while praising the attention it’s brought to regenerative farming.)

Mt. Joy’s marketing materials don’t lean too hard into the save-the-climate messaging, and Cape says that’s because he believes the question “How much carbon can the soil sequester and for how long?” is a “red herring.” More importantly, he says, regenerative farming is better for the soil and animals and provides better wages for the people working in the supply chain than traditional industrial farming.

Could Mt. Joy help push the U.S. toward regenerative practices? First, it has to be a successful business, which requires it to make a sandwich people love. As Cape puts it: “The conduit of our platform is the fried chicken sandwich.” The conduit’s breading has a briny, umami bite to it, while the meat inside is juicy and flavorful. Unusually, Mt. Joy sells a dark meat sandwich, which gives you an extra layer of richness and gaminess. Though the chicken is the star ingredient, it’s balanced out by tangy pickles and a slightly crunchy tomato. Mt. Joy also sells fries with a variety of sauces and high-quality shakes in flavors like strawberry basil.

The in-utero chain may be setting out to revolutionize the chicken industry on the supply side. But in terms of customer experience, no wheel is getting reinvented here. It’s the typical 21st-century fast-casual journey, where you walk in, order on a touchscreen, and get a pretty good, pretty satisfying sandwich for around $15.

Mt. Joy is also, apart from all that other stuff, a pretty typical food truck. It’s centered around a single dish, aided by some splashy branding, and run by a dreamer with more than the usual amount of energy — the kind of person who gets into the restaurant industry, when you get right down to it. In the days before the restaurant opened, Cape was at the truck a lot, he says, “doing whatever needs to be done,” adjusting inflatable men, saying hello to customers, asking how the food was, telling them he looks forward to seeing them come back.

Is this fun for the former tech CEO, owning a restaurant? “Oh,” he says with a smile, “I love it!”


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