Bill the Butcher CEO J’Amy Owens was ordered year a ago to pay ex-workers, but they still haven’t found her. Also: Tech firms eager to recruit UW computer science students, and Washington apples get e-commerce pitch at China's Singles Day extravagnza.

Share story

In the year since Bill the Butcher CEO J’Amy Owens absconded with workers’ paychecks as the six stores shut down, employees of the tiny, always-unprofitable public company have learned some hard lessons.

“Winning a lawsuit is one thing — collecting the money is another,” says Sarah Curtis, who’d worked at the chain for more than two years.

“Maybe I should have asked a few more questions, should have known what I was getting into,” says Andy Shaw, who joined the company as interim operations manager just three months before it finally collapsed one Friday last October. “While the ship was sinking, I was the guy telling the staff everything was going to be all right.”

Of course, it wasn’t all right. The 53-year-old Owens, once a well-regarded retail consultant who founded Bill the Butcher in 2009, dropped out of sight in October 2014 after diverting a $108,000 state tax-refund check that should have covered her employees’ overdue paychecks.

That came soon after a former friend and fellow retail consultant, Sunny Kobe Cook, excoriated Owens in blog posts for not repaying $50,000 in loans.

Days after the shutdown, The Seattle Times reported the cash-strapped company had paid several hundred thousand dollars toward the future purchase of a posh five-bedroom Queen Anne home where Owens and her daughter were living; the arrangement was described to stockholders as a company lease of “corporate facilities.”

Shaw recalls sitting for his job interview in that elegant Tudor-style house, thinking, “This is one of those people who is really successful.” Owens was evicted as the company unraveled.

Left in the lurch, Shaw and 10 others sued Owens and the defunct company for their unpaid wages. Most were owed several thousand; one was due $9,276 in gross wages. For a while, some of them “could barely afford to put food on the table,” says Shaw.

Jason Cook, former manager of Bill the Butcher’s Magnolia store, says even collecting unemployment benefits took extra weeks because the company had not been filing the required reports. Financially, he says, “The several months that I was out of work really set me back.”

Owens did not respond to the lawsuit. Superior Court Judge Samuel Chung ruled in February that with pay, damages and interest, the 11 employees are owed $76,453.

His ruling says Owens acted “to divert the funding paycheck from the payroll account” to another under her sole control, then “refused to pay the wages … (and) ceased responding to requests from her corporate managers.”

The employees’ Seattle attorney, Michael Jacobson, has not been able to locate Owens or any assets to seize. Cook, likewise, reports “no luck in collecting what I’m owed.”

Curtis, whose family of five relied on that check for their monthly mortgage payment, says she had qualms about spending on a lawyer to pursue the case. But she decided, “It was the principle — ‘You took money from us that we worked hard for.’ I need to do this.”

Shaw says the dilemma is that to hunt further for Owens, “we would have had to shell out more money.”

The employees remain hopeful that someone who knows where Owens might be will get in touch with their attorney.

Meanwhile, the betrayal by a boss who espoused all sorts of commitment to better food and wholesome living still stings.

Says Curtis: “This woman, our leader, stole from us.”

— Rami Grunbaum:

Tech firms eager to recruit at UW

It was nearly impossible to walk unimpeded through the huge atrium of the University of Washington’s computer-science building Wednesday. The space had been taken over by dozens of booths run by companies hungry for engineering talent, and hundreds of students were there to meet with recruiters.

The event is a twice-annual recruiting day held by the Department of Computer Science & Engineering. This fall, 59 companies set up swanky booths manned with teams of recruiters to try to catch the attention of potential hires.

Bader Tayeb, a 20-year-old sophomore in the computer-science department, said he had always thought he would need to go out and search for jobs. But it’s proved to be a bit different from what he imagined.

“I feel like the companies are coming to us. I feel like we are in demand,” he said.

Technology workers are being sought across the country, and especially in the Puget Sound region as tech companies move in. Tech firms in the state create jobs 10 times faster than the state educates people qualified for the positions, according to the Washington Technology Industry Association.

UW graduates about 230 computer-science undergrads annually.

While students were looking Wednesday for companies that attracted their attention with interesting technology and swag, companies were also finding ways to quickly screen potential hires.

Seattle-based Marchex, a mobile advertising analytics company, was hosting a “Coding for Chocolate” challenge. Students stood all around the booth, scribbling on clipboards that held a short coding quiz. Marchex recruiters handed out candy bars to those who finished.

“We use this instead of doing a first-round interview,” said Jennifer List of Marchex. The company calls students who scored well to interview them for internships.

The next recruiting day will be in January.

— Rachel Lerman:

Alibaba site to offer state apples

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is putting some extra shine on Washington apples before the Singles Day shopping extravaganza next month.

The Washington Apple Commission says apples specially packaged with QR codes — those checkerboard-like bar codes — will be sold through Alibaba’s T-Mall shopping site, allowing Chinese consumers “to trace the apple back to the orchard where they were grown in Washington state.”

Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma attended an opening ceremony to promote the online shopping day, which is comparable to the U.S. “Cyber Monday,” the apple commission said in a media release.

In the apple-marketing year ending in August, about 3.1 million 40-pound cartons of Washington apples, worth over $53 million, wound up in China, according to the commission. It says consumption of apples in China is growing more than 6 percent annually.

Alibaba says its e-commerce sites did $9 billion in business during last year’s Singles Day shopping frenzy.

— Rami Grunbaum: