- How can food be the key to unlocking the next high-impact business model?
- How do you make good food that is healing for the planet, its people, and its animals?
- How hard is it really to do good and do good business?
- What does it take to create an ecosystem that shows how fried chicken can be used to change the status quo?
In this episode, we sit with Robbie Cape, a serial entrepreneur committed to building successful businesses dedicated to repairing the world meaningfully. He co-founded and is CEO of Mt. Joy, a restaurant that focuses on bringing irresistible fried chicken sandwiches from farm-to-table using regenerative practices. When Robbie’s not thinking about how to help more farmers farm regeneratively, he’s working on building a more sustainable, transparent supply chain for good food. Today, we talk to Robbie about his journey from tech to the food industry and how he’s making Mt. Joy’s business model of an inclusive food-farmer-processing-distribution and-consumer ecosystem, one that can take how we eat, how we farm, and how we care for our planet into the next generation.
PI. What’s on your mind lately? What have you been focused on recently?
RC: It’s it’s been quite a shift. For the past 30 years of my career, I’ve been focused on technology. My last effort before this one was technology applied to health care. But this is the first time I’ve departed from technology, and I’m focused on regenerative agriculture. As it turns out, regenerative is generally applied to the food supply chain. It got me very, very excited as I started to learn about regenerative about two years ago after watching the movie Kiss the Ground. It set my mind on fire, and I recognized this could be. I believed that it would be the future of good food. You know, today, people talk about organic. I felt that what I was learning about regenerative, that this was going to be the future, this was going to be what people refer to as good food in the future, and decided that I wanted to be a part of making it commercially not only viable but but but dominant.
PI: Tell us a little bit about regenerative because people might not know precisely what it is, how it is different from organic, and what it means to have regenerative practices.
RC. Regenerative is not only a way of growing the food that we eat. It’s a way of interacting with all of the constituents of the food supply chain. I like to summarize regenerative, at least in the way I think about it because it’s a set of principles that have you leaving the resources you use better than when you found them. Okay. So, in typical agriculture, you tend to use your resources and largely deplete them. So, in general, if you think about row crops, the soil that is growing typical cash crops in the United States has been robbed of most of its fertility and organic matter, which is why it needs all of these inputs, like fertilizers and herbicides and fungicides and all of these, these inputs to enable things to grow. Um, with regenerative, you’re actually with regenerative agriculture in particular, after you use the land for whatever it is that you’re growing, the idea is that the land is actually better off than when you started, the land has more fertility, it has more carbon. It has more. It’s more, it’s even more ready to grow again. Uh, and that concept of leaving a resource better than when you found it and started using it can be applied to all of the elements. So, generally, regenerative agriculture applies to the ground and how you treat the ground. But how we think about regenerative applies to how you treat the farmer. You leave the farmer better than when you found them. Um, you know, the animals, uh, the workers working in the processing plants, the workers working at retail. You know, the idea is that you’re embracing each of these constituents, bringing joy to their lives, and ultimately making them better off.
PI. How does this initiative take shape? What you’re focused on is reinventing the whole system around food. Can you tell us more about how that comes to life and how you impact it?
RC. So this is where things got interesting. You know, regenerative agriculture and these gendered practices have existed for some time. In truth, if you go back to the way people used to make food before American industrialization, the food supply chain was largely regenerative. In other countries, standard ways of bringing food to market are construed mainly as regenerative. But here in the United States, there is this enormous push right now to get more farmers to farm this way. And you know that farming is applied to crops like corn and wheat and soy and peas, which are the center of our food supply chain on the vegetable front. But it can also be applied to raising beef, chicken, pork, and other livestock. Most of the efforts around regenerative agriculture now, which is picking up steam in the United States, are focused on the farmers. They’re focused on educating farmers. Some foundations bring dollars to bear. They’re focused on Washington to try to create subsidies or to remove subsidies from farming. When I came to this, I got a farmer’s advice: “Yes, if you focus on the farmer, that’s one thing. But what we need to do is focus on the consumer”. We need to focus on building demand at the consumer level for food that is grown this way. Our thesis at the company we founded around this at Mt. Joy was that if you build demand for food grown this way, the supply will follow.
And indeed, this is what we’re seeing. So the manifestation for us of regenerative is we decided that we were going to build a restaurant that would ultimately be a chain of restaurants that sold that was centered around this concept of regenerative, that sold regenerative, grown chicken and other products that had elements of regenerative in them and slowly move. The ultimate goal is to have all of our products be regenerative, and by building demand for that product, the idea is that we would pull through the supply. We would get more farmers to farm this way by building the demand for that product. And indeed, we’ve done that even though we’ve barely even launched. We have a food truck in Seattle that is serving our menu. We’re about to open our first restaurant, so we’re still very early. And even so, we’ve already impacted the supply chain here in the Pacific Northwest. So, we already have proof that this thesis is indeed validated. And that’s incredibly exciting because my general belief is that this market force ultimately is the most powerful source. It is the most powerful source you can bring money in Foundations, Governments, all that stuff to bear on the farmers. And I do believe that that will have some impact. But until we activate capitalism, which is demand and supply, on this problem, the results will still be limited. When you activate capitalism, you can have a very strong impact very quickly.
PI. You’re using consumer demand to encourage those further upstream to rethink their practices. And what types of reactions have you been getting further upstream, like were there any unexpected outcomes that you know stick with you?
RC. Absolutely. I’ve been blown away. On the one hand, I’m surprised. And on the other hand, I’m not surprised. Um, I’ve been surprised for the moment. I’ve been surprised at how quickly the farmers jump on board. And I’m partially surprised and partially not because I learned about it when I started studying this. I immediately recognized that this was a form of agriculture and a supply chain that was better for everyone, better for everyone. It is better for the animals and the farmers, and it’s better for the consumers who eat the food because it produces better food. It’s better for the environment. It’s literally better for everyone. So why aren’t more people doing it?
Well, more people aren’t doing it because the demand for this kind of food is not there. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the moment the demand is there because it’s better for everyone. The moment the demand is there, we see the agricultural community focus on producing food this way. Even in this very first year, we almost doubled, potentially tripled, the amount of regeneratively grown chicken in the Pacific Northwest by doing a bunch of pop-ups and launching a food truck. That’s incredibly exciting. Not only that, but we brought a brand new farmer on board who had not been raising chickens at all when he and his team learned about our program and the program of raising chickens out in the fields. This is a hay farmer out on the fields. He got incredibly excited, and he decided to launch a brand new chicken program on his fields with the plan to become one of the top ten producers of regeneratively grown chicken in the United States in the next several years.
The reaction has been what we would have hoped for. Although I still am an entrepreneur, I’m always surprised when things turn out the way I hope they will. Usually, when you’re building something from nothing, things turn out differently than you think they will. So this is one area where I was very, very pleasantly surprised.
PI. Robbie, why Mt. Joy? How did you come up with this name?
RC. So, we were working with a brand person upfront, so I can’t take credit for coming up with the name. I will take credit for falling in love with the name when it was shared amongst hundreds and hundreds if not over a thousand different names. The reason I fell in love with it was twofold. First of all, mountains are at the top; they mark high points, and I like the idea of us striving and aspiring to a high point. Joy is simple, and joy is at the center, by the way. Joy is what we’re trying to bring, what we want to bring to all the constituents of the food supply chain and to our guests.
We want to bring joy to planet Earth. We want to bring joy to the ground. We want to bring joy to the farmers, workers, and the processing plants. You’ve heard me talk about these people, to the retail workers, to the animals who are making the ultimate sacrifice. When they taste our food, we want our guests to feel joy. We want our investors to feel joy, like it’s just again, you know, it goes back to that point. As I said earlier, it’s universal. Who doesn’t want to feel joy? Those words, together with me, summarized what our brand was and is all about.
PI. As you’ve been building out Mt. Joy, the supply chain, and everything around it, and getting the business off the ground, what do you wish people talked about more, acted on, or were mindful of?
RC. Interestingly, you ask that question; most people who hear about what we’re doing think it’s incredible and a noble objective. So we get kudos for focusing on something good for the environment, and when we’re thinking big, we say, you know, good for humanity.
I wish people were more sensitive to the investment required to do something like this. The hardest thing for us, we’ve had enormous success across all areas. One of the hardest things for us has been to raise capital to grow this business because, ultimately, there’s a category of investors who invest in this general space, generally speaking, restaurant investors. To them, this looks just like another restaurant. We’ve been working to get the capital markets or, in this case, these are small investors to see that this is different, that this is different, that this is something unique. This isn’t just another restaurant, even though, in a lot of ways, we have to behave just like another restaurant; we have to make sure we have to be outrageously attentive to all of the details associated with launching this brand.
You can’t get away from the fact that it is a restaurant. That’s that’s one of the significant elements. Another significant element I was not as focused on as we were getting going was the price differential. Good food tastes better; the flip side is it does cost a little bit more to create it. That’s the reason why the United States industrialized the production of corn and wheat, soy, peas, and meat to make food incredibly cheap.
This drive to make the food cheap to grow has made the food that consumers eat quite inexpensive, especially meat. When you’re doing it the right way, it costs a little bit more. We are figuring out how much more consumers will pay for food. That is good. We recognize (and this is a tough learning) that at the end of the day, most consumers in the United States want to have their cake and eat it, too.
They want the food to be affordable and for it to be good; they want it to have a mission and for it to be inexpensive. Now they are willing to spend a little bit more. There’s no question about that. Organic has grown phenomenally in the past ten years. I mean, it’s explosive. And certainly when you buy the organic item, it’s more expensive than the regular item, there’s no question. But it can’t be double or triple the cost.
Mt. Joy’s approach to food, or even thinking about the entire ecosystem, is not yet universal, and the fact that you’re engaging with everyone inside, every hand, inside the ecosystem, is also new. So, each of those hands will have preconceived notions of what good food means. What does regenerative mean? And why do I need to do this, and why does it make sense?
PI. What is something that you do that has helped set the stage for some great conversations? Because only some of those conversations have been easy, I’m sure.
RC. I do it by shining a big, bright light on the mission. Maybe it’s because we’re self-selective. We’re talking to people who want to have conversations with us; even the fact that they’ve entered into the conversation is a selection bias, that they know there’s something different here. When we lay out the mission that we’re on and the potential impact it will have on the food supply chain or show the market that you can be incredibly successful even when you’re doing something differently. That underlying mission, at least here in the Pacific Northwest, and I’d say in general across the United States for the people we’re talking to, is very exciting. The impact that regenerative has on the environment. We hit the people, and we talk about how we’re treating the farmers and the people who are working in processing and how we’re treating the employees.
When you talk about treating people well, and we can contrast it to how a lot of those same constituents are treated in the industrial system, that’s just humanity. People just melt into those benefits. And then thirdly, the animals, you know, we talk about how we want to treat the animals who are making the ultimate sacrifice.
These three vectors alone focused on creating these resources right. It ends up getting a lot of head-nodding from everyone. They understand, they hear it, see it, they can feel that delta. And it is very straightforward to get them excited about what we’re doing. And by the way, this is not just the consumers who we talk to. It’s also he press, the suppliers, and potential employees; we lead with our mission 100%.
I have some people in my mind, people who I’ve had conversations with, and there will be the kind of pushback that we get is. “Robbie, that sounds wonderful, but can you do that at a price that makes sense?.” or “Can you do it inexpensively enough?” or “…but can that scale?”
PI. What have you been doing to show them, that this works like that, that we can do this at an affordable rate? Is there something unique about the business model, like collaborations or partnerships, you’ve made to make this possible?
RC. Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding, right? We are showing them, and it’s like, of course, I can build, I can build financial models, and I can, I can describe the cost of goods sold, I can explain the supply chain and, and what we’re spending on chicken and all of that. It’s still all very practical, but it’s theoretical. Most skeptics will want to see the reality, so we must execute it. Right? We have to execute the plan that we have. But of course, the numbers show that this is possible. The impact that we’ve had on the supply chain here in the Pacific Northwest shows that we can grow scale rather dramatically. The cost of goods numbers, the multiples that you need to get to, and the restaurant plan show that you can do this profitably. But again, ultimately, skeptics like to see it in reality. And so that’s what we’re setting out to achieve.
The pop-ups and the food truck are like beautiful demonstrations of very, very successful pilots and prototypes, essentially, for those skeptics. All of this is led up to the restaurant opening on December 1, which is exciting.
PI. What has been one piece of advice that someone has given you that has stuck with you that you still think of?
RC. Thinking in general, based on the advice that I’ve been given, tenacity can sometimes cause entrepreneurs to push for too long. It comes down to this little advice contrary to what most entrepreneurs think. Most entrepreneurs think that money is our scarcest resource because, generally speaking, day-to-day, at the micro level, we entrepreneurs operate certainly in the very early stages, needing money to do what they need to do. You’re very focused on money as the scarce resource for what you’re trying to achieve. The advice that I got was that, which I now give to most entrepreneurs whom I speak to, that money is not your scarcest resource. Your scarcest resource is time. Ultimately, the money is out there. there’s practically unlimited money available for exciting startups. But each of us has a limited amount of time, and we need to make sure that we’re dedicating that time to the things that matter and that will have the impact that we want to have. Time is your scarcest resource, and when you think about the world in that way, it can sometimes change the calculus on the things that you that you’re working on.
PI What piece of advice would you give to the members of our audience about how to have tough conversations, really trying to drive a mission bring people on board, and create a village around it? Create a movement. What advice would you give them when they’re on that journey?
RC. How do you drive forward when you have a big mission, big objective, or something big that you’re trying to do? I’d say let’s focus on that. Usually, when something’s big, it’s hard, it’s complicated. There’s a lot of details. My wife likes to say, and I say it often, worry in order. The focus isn’t worrying, but the focus is working in order. There are all sorts of decisions that have to be made, and we can easily get ourselves bogged down by decisions that don’t necessarily need to be made today. They can be made tomorrow. And generally speaking, you have to make things to make the progress that you need to make every day. And if you don’t need to make those decisions today, step back. Don’t make those decisions today. When those decisions need to be made, you’ll make them, if they can be made tomorrow, next year, or two years from now, it is inevitable that you will have more information when it comes time to make those decisions.
The other piece of advice, and this isn’t usually advice that I have to give to entrepreneurs, because I think they have this gene, it’s a gene. They have this sort of preponderance to be willing to fail. Failures are in terms of our growth as human beings. Failures are almost more important than successes. And I’ve had my fair share. And they’ve been, they’ve been life-changing for me. Every single one of them has been life-changing. We tend to learn a whole lot more from those failures than from the successes. And so, you know, someone considering being an entrepreneur and having a big idea but might not have that, you know, just that natural inclination to be willing to fail.
PI. These are so good. I’ll make sure to make some posters out of those ideas! What’s next. What are you cooking with Mount Joy? Where are you headed?
RC. Right now, we’re very, very focused on getting our first physical location up and running. It’s in Capitol Hill in Seattle at Pine and 11th. It’s a wonderful area with lots of restaurants. Interestingly enough, there are several fried chicken restaurants. So we will, we will get to see how we do in a world where there is a plethora of fried chicken options. We’re very, very focused on that right now. Number two, in our plan, we recognized that it was unknown. It is impossible to know what type of location will work best for a given restaurant concept. We were very, very focused on on having multiple locations of Mt.Joy so that we could we can test which formula for Mt.Joy was the one that we wanted to rinse and repeat.
The second thing we’re very focused on right now is raising the dollars necessary to launch a second location and do that side-by-side testing, which is essential.
We have the truck, and we’re excited to have a permanent location in Capitol Hill, Seattle — and to serve customers every day as we start looking the search for the following location.