The conception of Bill’s was something of a happy accident back in 2000. Now, as it enters its teenage years, it is fast growing up into a strapping young restaurant business, guided by its friendly but disciplined
guardians Roberto Moretti and Scott Macdonald.
In true British fashion, it was all down to the weather. Torrential rain in the autumn of 2000 prompted extensive flooding in Lewes, East Sussex, which wrecked Bill Collison’s riverside greengrocery business.
The resourceful Collison set up a makeshift stall outside the premises to continue selling fruit and veg as the town gradually returned to normality. But behind the scenes it provided Bill’s with the opportunity to transform itself into a more upmarket greengrocer and café, re-opening as Bill’s Produce Store and Café in early 2001.
Collison hired Andy Pellegrino, an experienced chef with a Michelin-starred background, who utilised the store’s fantastic produce to create zingy and eclectic dishes. At the time Lewes – and indeed the rest of the UK – had barely seen anything like it. Bill’s Produce Store and Café was more West Coast US than southern England, swapping stodgy cakes, greasy egg sandwiches and stewed tea for homemade granola, vibrant salads and freshly-whizzed fruit smoothies.
Such was its success, a second branch opened in central Brighton in 2005, which proved to be another hit. A few years later, the business attracted the attention of mid-market maestros Andy Bassadone and Chris Benians, who had recently exited Italian group Strada. The pair were in the process of rolling out French bistro-concept Côte in partnership with fashion and restaurant mogul Richard Caring. The trio duly snapped up the Bill’s business in 2008.
Pacy and professional rollout
Fast-forward to 2014 and the group – now branded plain Bill’s again – has expanded to 29 sites. The vast majority of that growth has taken place in the last couple of years in what has been one of the paciest and most professional rollouts the casual dining sector has witnessed. There are now 14 Bill’s in London as well as branches across southern, western and central England in locations as diverse as Exeter, Cardiff and Cambridge.
Bassadone and Benians have now stepped back from the day-to-day running of the chain to let another FOH operations/kitchen operations partnership step into the limelight. Heading up the
business as joint MDs are South African-born Moretti, former regional operations director at Zizzi, and Londoner Macdonald, who spent a prolonged spell overseeing the restaurant offering at the Selfridges department store group.
The matey duo are outgoing and jokey, but their horseplay disguises a ruthlessly efficient management outfit. They and their team have managed to maintain standards in the face of an unprecedented schedule of new openings, and in doing so have made Bill’s one of the most respected groups in the casual space.
“The expansion started slowly because it took some time to identify what could be scaled up and what couldn’t. But now that we have a clear idea of what we’re trying to achieve, the pace of the rollout has increased,” says Macdonald, who has opened 24 Bill’s sites since joining the group in February 2011.
“We spend a lot of time and effort to make sure we don’t disappoint those that knew the brand in the early days,” interjects Moretti. “We’re obsessed with food quality, training and service standards because that’s where we know we’ll be judged.”
In contrast to Bill’s origins, the rollout of the concept has – quite necessarily – been a far more structured and strategic affair. Inevitably some elements of the business have had to fall by the wayside to allow it to be expanded effectively.
While the pre-takeover sites in Lewes and Brighton retain a greengrocery section, the new branches have dispensed with the fresh produce retail element.
“A greengrocery business is incredibly labour-intensive and wastage is high,” explains Macdonald. “You’d also have a very hard time scaling it. Nevertheless, the greengrocer heritage is an integral part of the brand’s DNA so we keep it going by continuing to source high quality fresh fruit and veg and preparing it in-house.”
Bill’s fresh produce origins are also referenced through the look of the venues. Fruit and veg is placed decoratively on tables and there are wheelbarrow displays of fresh fruit outside some of the branches.
Founder’s patriarchal role
Collison remains on-board but his position is no longer defined as operational, rather as a strong patriarchal figure that ensures the new owners retain as much of Bill’s DNA as is practically possible. The founder also plays a key role in the design of the sites, working with contractors during fit-out to ensure the restaurants have the same bright, welcoming look: skeins of raffia hang from the ceilings, dried chillies decorate the light fittings and hand-scrawled blackboards adorn the walls. “Don’t move anything, Bill will go nuts,” jokes Macdonald as we fiddle with the displays for the photo shoot.
Moretti and Macdonald admit that – for the moment at least – the retail piece is not a critical part of the sales mix. “It might not be essential from a turnover perspective, but the shop side remains one of the most distinctive elements of the brand,” says Moretti.
For obvious reasons Bill’s retail offer is now focused on ambient product. A catholic selection of relatively affordable treats line the walls and add considerable charm to the branches, with stock including everything from olive oil tins, pots of English honey to violet pastilles and posh teas.
On each table is a ‘Bag of Bill’s’ leaflet that encourages diners to tick boxes, dim-sum-style, and have retail items added to the bill with the goods handed over on leaving. However, big changes are afoot for the retail side of the business following the appointment of Tanya McMullen, who has been a buying manager at Selfridges for 12 years. She will have responsibility for procurement and will also redefine how products are sold both in store and online.
“It’s a real coup for us to get someone from that sector. Elements of the retail offering are under-utilised at present and we want to create more of a link between what’s on the shelves and what’s on the plate,” says Macdonald, who remains tight-lipped about the precise nature of the changes, due this spring.
Bill’s unusually high average turnover – clocked at over £30,000 per week at most sites – is down in part to its all-day dining approach ‘from breakfast to bedtime’. Breakfast trade accounts for over 25 per cent of Bill’s total revenue and venues tick over through the day and into the evening. The breakfast menu – which includes a full English and a popular vegetarian number involving hummus, guacamole and sweet chilli sauce (both £7.95) – runs from opening until 11.45am when the all-day menu kicks in. There is also a separate menu for afternoon tea, cakes and biscuits.
"In some businesses all-day dining can place a strain on labour, but at Bill’s we buy smart so we don’t have to do a huge amount of work when the dish comes on order,” says Macdonald.
“One of the great strengths of the brand is that there is no downtime, we don’t have spikes of trade like lunch- and dinner-focused restaurants – we’re just constantly busy. This allows us to spread labour pressures more efficiently; the day has a good flow to it,” adds Moretti
In the evening, the lights go down and throwaway paper napkins are replaced by red and white check cloth serviettes, with grand-looking vintage candelabras placed on the tables. It’s a simple but highly effective way of changing the look and feel of the venue that has ensured the tills at Bill’s continue to ring well into the night.
The scaling process has changed the menu and the way in which it is delivered fairly drastically. Chefs can no longer create dishes on an ad hoc basis as the menu is now standardised across the chain. “[But] we’re still fresh-product focused – we have to grow the brand on delivering good food that’s prepared by skilled chefs. That makes our lives harder, but it’s a key part of our business,” says Macdonald.
Changes in the menu
The main menu now changes every two to three months, and new specials are introduced every three weeks. The current all-day menu ranges from comfort food, including a fish finger sandwich (£8.50), chorizo Scotch egg (£5.50) and macaroni cheese (£8.50) to more complete main-meal dishes such as Bill’s duck pie (£11.95) and roast line-caught cod with an accompaniment of chorizo, butter beans, tomato, parsley, garlic and lemon (£11.95).
Several openings are slated for the first quarter of this year, most notably in Manchester, which will represent the group’s first move in the north of England. “That’s an important one for us. I know the Manchester market well and there’s nothing like Bill’s currently trading – it’s going to have a big impact,” says Macdonald.
The pair aren’t keen to pinpoint growth targets. “There are a lot of numbers being bounced around at the moment. Clearly we’re committed to rolling this business out across the country, but it’s dependent on the right sites and the right locations,” says Moretti. “But I would say the rate of expansion is unlikely to slow anytime soon.”
Taking into account Bill’s highly effective property-finding team, it would be reasonable to assume that Moretti and Macdonald will add at least 10 more restaurants to the estate this year. It’s a rate of expansion that could see Bill’s overtake former stablemate Côte, which Caring recently sold to private equity firm CBPE.
Somewhat cryptically Moretti, describes Bill’s simply as an ‘English’ brand. “Bill’s has got a genuine heritage factor and a good story behind it. It wasn’t focus-grouped into existence and you can’t quite put your finger on what we offer,” he maintains.
Bill’s might not lend itself to categorisation as readily as many casual dining brands, but given its undeniable success, this appears to be more of a strength than a weakness.