Big Ideas

At Ethan Stowell's New Chain, Climate Action Means Fried Chicken Sandwiches

The chef is a partner in Mt. Joy, a chicken chain that will serve crispy sandwiches with a sustainability agenda. A popup next week at Tavolàta on Capitol Hill offers a glimpse of the food.

By Allecia Vermillion October 4, 2022

Pasture-raised chicken will come from within 200 miles of Seattle.

A group of cofounders—among them a farmer, a former health tech CEO, and chef Ethan Stowell—are launching a fast-casual restaurant where the fried chicken sandwiches double as a means to overhaul agricultural processes that contribute to climate change.

The first Mt. Joy restaurant will likely open in Seattle in 2023. All the chicken will be pasture raised—a regenerative practice that delivers quality meat, but also promotes healthy soil; advocates say it also removes carbon from our atmosphere and "sequesters" it in the ground.

A three-day preview at Stowell’s Tavolàta  location on Capitol Hill October 14–16 will give the public its first glimpse of the actual food that will drive this ambitious project. It also gives the Mt. Joy team a chance to get public feedback on its menu of fried chicken sandwiches, milkshakes, and french fries with five housemade dipping sauces.

Mt. Joy chief marketing officer Pat Snavely says the company hopes to expand rapidly: The more sandwiches you sell, the more pastured chickens are out there improving our soil—and, by extension, our atmosphere. But tastiness is key. “If it’s not the best chicken sandwich people have ever had, they’re not going to care as much.”

Mt. Joy’s sandwiches will hew crispy, classic, and approachable, says Stowell. The popup will sell versions made with chicken breast or the less common—arguably more tasty—chicken thighs. Each will be available in both regular or spicy versions. And each one will use that all-important pasture-raised meat.

A growing number of farms raise chickens via these methods, but pastured chicken meat remains relatively scarce, even in sustainability-minded Seattle. “Pasture-raised” is an unregulated term; we see it more often with eggs. In this case, it involves mobile shelters that move daily to fresh pasture. The birds Mt. Joy cofounder Grant Jones raises on his farm see new land each day that hasn’t hosted chickens for at least a year. In other words, he says, it’s actual pasture—"lush, green, grass, legumes—biodiverse.”

Advocates say this practice delivers richer, more flavored meat. That depends on many factors, says Jones, but now whenever he tastes conventional chicken, the flavor strikes him as “what I used to think chicken tasted like.”

Longtime Stowell chef Dionne Himmelfarb came on as chief culinary officer. The meat is so juicy, she says, it doesn’t need a brine. She designed a chicken sandwich—soaked in seasoned buttermilk, then dredged in spiced flour—that recalls beloved versions from chains like Shake Shack. But in many ways, the sandwich is just a means to an end.

 

The venture that is Mt. Joy has its roots in a Saturday evening last October, when Robbie Cape, cofounder of telehealth company 98point6, watched a documentary called Kiss the Ground. Woody Harrelson narrates the film about regenerative agriculture and its potential to improve the health of our soil—and in turn capture carbon from the atmosphere.

After the movie, “My brain was just on fire,” Cape says. Much of regenerative agriculture was standard in America before the industrial food complex. As a meat eater, Cape latched onto the parts that pertain to raising livestock.

He applied a tech entrepreneur mindset to the decidedly different world of agriculture. “I can’t find farmers on LinkedIn,” he says. At one point his college son helped him scrape a database from an online directory to find regenerative farmers in Washington.

Cape wanted to encourage more farmers to adopt these practices. His head was full of possibilities around developing or franchising teaching methods. But one farmer he spoke to reframed the entire issue: One of the most helpful things this enthusiastic technologist could do, he told Cape, was help create a demand for pasture-raised protein. Farmers are far more likely to raise chickens this way, if they know they will sell.

“My mind immediately went to restaurants,” says Cape. In some ways, it’s the food cognate of 98point6, a business that delivers virtual medical care directly to consumers.

Grant Jones was one of the regenerative farmers Cape spoke to early on. Now he’s a cofounder, supplying slower-growing, pasture-raised, Freedom Ranger chickens. He’s also working with other regenerative farms in Washington, building a supply chain intended to scale up, based on a product that is, by definition, raised in small quantities.

Cape enjoyed Ethan Stowell restaurants, so he sent a note via the public intake form on the company website. He hoped Stowell might spare some time to give a little feedback. Instead, the chef came on as a partner. Mt. Joy will source its non-chicken ingredients locally as well, from milkshakes to mayonnaise to custom brioche buns baked locally by Franz.

While the first brick-and-mortar shop won’t arrive until next year (the company is eyeing Capitol Hill locations), the popup at Tavolàta October 14–16 offers a glimpse into the food that will power this project. The regular menu will pause entirely in favor of Mt. Joy’s sandwiches, shakes, and fries; the full bar will be intact, plus beer from Holy Mountain. You can order online to avoid waits.

The cost will be slightly higher than a chicken sandwich sourced through the regular industrial supply chain, says Cape. “It’s a little more work, requires a different way of thinking.” Before launching this project, he says, he knew nothing about the food industry. “You meet a lot of people who romanticize running a restaurant. Yeah, that’s not me.” But he might be the guy who creates something new within this framework.

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