The Strange Tale of Jeff Bezos and the Single Cow Burger

Copyright: Brad Stone, from Amazon Unbound

From Chapter 8: Amazon’s Future is CRaP

As Amazon continued to experiment and trial different ways to deliver fresh food and groceries, it faced a mounting problem: fledgling grocery services like Amazon Fresh and Prime Now didn’t offer anything unique, often charged higher prices and weren’t retaining their customers. If Amazon wanted to arouse excitement and loyalty for these programs, it needed something else entirely—like a unique product that customers were passionate about. Well, Jeff Bezos had an idea for that as well and it was just as bizarre.

In August 2015, the Washington Post published an unappetizing article about how a single hamburger might contain the meat of up to a hundred cows. Sourcing a burger from just a single cow could theoretically produce a superior-tasting patty but that “would be hard and expensive,” a meat distributor told the paper.

That caught Bezos’s attention. He seemed to have increasingly adventurous tastes, later sampling an iguana, for example, at a meeting of New York City’s Explorers Club. In another brainstorming meeting with senior vice president Doug Herrington, he suggested they find a ranch to produce a “single cow burger” and make it a unique item that customers could only buy from Amazon. “I really think you should try this,” Bezos told Herrington, who recalled thinking at first it was a joke. “How hard can it be?”

The project was assigned to a new culinary innovations team inside Amazon Fresh and immediately established as an S-team goal—a high-priority benchmark monitored closely by Bezos and the leadership council. A product manager named Megan Rosseter was then charged with finding a way to actually produce it. The meat vendors she initially contacted told her that such a thing was totally impractical and would in fact be disruptive to their operations. “I felt like I was always getting crazy daunting goals that seemed almost impossible,” she said.

Somehow, Rosseter and her colleagues found a ranch in San Diego County, near the Mexican border, that could produce the burger. They worked with the ranch that spring, devising ways to freeze the meat for transport and designing packaging that wouldn’t leak when it was defrosted. In June 2016, Amazon splashed Single Cow Burger promotions on the Fresh website and smartphone app, advertising half-pound Wagyu beef burgers with 80 percent lean meat and 20 percent fat. The company also prepped Alexa with an answer should anyone ever ask it for a definition: “Single cow burger: a beef burger made with meat from just a single cow.”

The initial feedback from customers was promising. “These burgers are HUGE, JUICY and DELICIOUS!!!” wrote a reviewer on the Amazon website. But a few months later, Bezos sent an email to Fresh executives. He felt that the packaging was too difficult to open and complained that the burger was so fatty that dripping fat had caused his grill to flame up.

Rosseter believed that premium Wagyu beef should be cooked in a cast iron skillet and not on a grill. But she was not about to give unsolicited cooking advice to her CEO. She was also astonished that Bezos seemed to care so much. “It was definitely one of those ‘I can’t believe this is actually happening moments’ in my life,” she said.

So Rosseter went back to her supplier, who subcontracted the work to another ranch in Georgia that could produce Heritage Aberdeen Angus beef burgers with 91 percent lean meat and only 9 percent fat. After repeated trips to taste-test variations, Rosseter had a second single cow burger, with easy-to-peel packaging, ready to go by January 2017. The Fresh team sent a sample to Bezos’s office, and word came back a few days later that he was satisfied.

The project once again represented a different style of innovation within Amazon. Employees didn’t “work backwards” from their idealized customers, who had never asked for such a creation. They worked backwards from Bezos’s intuition and were catering to his sometimes-eclectic tastes (literally) and boundless curiosity. Bezos was right a lot, particularly when it came to cutting-edge technology. But in the end, the single cow burger and other culinary innovations introduced within Amazon Fresh generated little buzz or increased business.

Rosseter stuck it out for a few months but felt her efforts were not being recognized. She called the work environment “stressful and unhappy.” So she prepared to leave Amazon Fresh, right as a bomb was dropped on top of it.