Bill’s hints at national possibilities.” This is what I wrote in 2008 when I reviewed Bill’s Produce Stores in Lewes for the Daily Telegraph. I’m wrong about most stuff, but in this one tiny prediction I could hardly have been more right. A stake in the store and café was snapped up by Richard Caring, who owns Le Caprice and The Ivy: and he spread the Bill’s model across the country, and it will now (here’s a fresh prediction) blow the likes of Carluccio’s out of the aqua: for it provides excellent, seasonal, casual, family dining at affordable prices.
Which is quite some legacy for Bill Collison, who started selling veg from a nearby stall after his father gave him a shed and a barrow and told him to start a business and stop being a “pest”.
You could spot Bill’s from down the street: remembering his roots, Bill ensured that the pavement oozed fruit, with signs declaring: “Kentish corn-on-the-cob: five for 50p”. Inside I found a treasure trove of food, with hanging dried peppers and shelves of own-brand juices and olive oil. There was also a counter of film-set puddings, decorated with flowers. This would have been a mighty fine deli for a provincial town, but before the explosion of café culture, this was also a much celebrated café. I turned up on a Monday lunchtime and found folk queuing outside; it was brilliant.
I was alerted to it by a friend, Nancy, who had long worshipped the place with the messianic zeal of a cult follower. We were perched on church chairs, which in winter had hot-water bottles resting on the bible ledges. We also found opera glasses from nearby Glyndebourne to help read menus dotted on boards; what a jolly touch.
The Café Royal aside, there could not have been many cafés back in 2008 serving Champagne. I settled for a delicious home-made smoothie decorated with huge chunks of fruit. I shared a mezze featuring home-made guacamole with beans sprouting out of a pot, hummus thick with chickpeas and, best of all, that old Lebanese charmer of roasted aubergine, baba ganoush, great with accompanying red onion.
It followed, my notes remind me, with flat pasta with butternut squash, spinach, oyster mushrooms, pine nuts, garlic, rocket and parmesan. There was, I recorded, a lot going on there – too much, perhaps – but I forgave it for the strong infusion of basil.
Better still was the smoked mackerel, prettily presented with green beans, roasted tomatoes, caramelised red onions and beetroot, all supporting a poached egg – just fabulous.
The menu was heavy on quiche and light on blood, but customers defied the usual vegan stereotype; cool youngsters, yummy mummies, pensioners and suited businessmen were all sharing tables, without civil war. I liked the higgledy-piggledy feel: what was cooked was what happened to be on the shelves. And the detail was wonderful: an attentive waitress discussed at length the preparation of my (sumptuous) hot chocolate.
I concluded the article: “Every high street should have a place like this. My only reservation is that they should use Bill’s as a model, then open their own; if Bill’s spreads too far, it could become the very thing it was founded to counter.”
So did this, too, turn out to be another accurate little prophecy?
I actually really like Bill’s, the chain. It still has an eclectic mix of dishes, several of them healthy, served informally with lots of fresh produce in view. Whether you want coffee or food, it is way better than any comparable national chain, and most local start-ups. Plus dishes are seasonal.
But there are sharp differences, too. The chain is slickly run, with little of the scruffy, enthusiastic amateurishness of the original grocery store. Or indeed any of the groceries (though it does sell own-produce jams and such like). It is called “Bill’s”, but could it just as easily be called “Ben’s”, for all it shares with its Lewes original?
Bill Collison, the eponymous “Bill”, answers our questions
How do you look back now on your early days setting up Bill’s?
As pretty crazy times! Up every morning at 2am to drive to Covent Garden for fruit and veg. Then back to the shop to start the day.
What would your parents say, who first gave you that shed, when they saw the success of Bill’s?
They would have been very proud, and probably amazed.
When did you think it could really take off and become a national chain?
I didn’t, until it started to happen.
Have you kept the original Bill’s in Lewes as it was, or is it now like the rest of the chain?
Bill’s in Lewes will always be special and different. Aly, the manager there, has been with me since we were a small greengrocers – nearly 30 years. She knows exactly how to run Lewes Bill’s to keep that old energy alive.
Other chains such as Carluccio’s have been accused of losing their souls – are you worried about that?
Bill’s has always been about people – the people who work for us, and our customers. So long as that’s always our priority, we will have soul.
Some would say that the original ideal has been lost – that however good the chain is (and it is very good, indeed) it no longer has the quirky, slightly amateur, enthusiastic feel of the original?
I disagree! Have you seen our new restaurant in Greenwich? It’s got masses of quirky. And you’d have to look hard on the high street to find teams as enthusiastic as ours.
Did you have to think twice before selling into a bigger company?
Of course. It was a very big decision. But we knew we would need help if we wanted to expand.
Would you set up another restaurant/café concept?
I’m always dreaming up new ideas!
Why have coffee shops and now casual cafés selling decent food taken off?
They’re an inevitable outcome of the food revolution which has been taking place in the UK over the past 15 years or so. The bar has been raised, the public expect better quality, more variety, and lots of it.
Is it sustainable that we have so many cafés/coffee bars on our high streets?
If they’re good they’ll succeed. If they get it wrong, they won’t. The public have huge influence as they’re the decision-makers.
Why have the Brits suddenly bought into coffee/café culture so much?
Lots of reasons. International travel, better quality coffee, convenience, and a huge cultural shift to eat and drink out. Another huge shift has been the number of people now working from home, so cafés have become meeting places for work, as well as for social gatherings.
Away from work, what do you like to do?
Walk my dog Frank in the countryside around my home, cook for family and friends, watch my boys play sport, dream up new café/restaurant concepts (see above!).
Please tell us a bit about your life away from work?
I’m married to Becca, and we have three boys – one is just finishing university and the other two are still at home. We lived in Lewes for years, but moved to the countryside near Uckfield a few years ago.
What would be your perfect Sussex weekend?
Bit of sport – maybe a run and then a swim, lots of prep and cooking for friends and family all round the table for dinner or Sunday lunch, a long walk with Frank.
Where else do you like to eat in Sussex?
Marmalade in Brighton or The Swan in Lewes for a roast dinner and a pint of Harvey’s.