It’s normal for a founder to stay on for a few years, but not a decade. Why have you stayed?
Bill’s was my life. I worked 24/7 for this business. When we sold in 2008 I took a step back, although I was still involved in the design and site openings, although not really on the ops side. A few years later when we brought in two managing directors I took an even bigger step back. The early years following the sale were tough. It took me a few years to work out how to have a life away from Bill’s. But I’m very happy I stayed on.
Were you frustrated by how things were being done?
Yes. Inevitably some of the decisions made weren’t the ones that I would have taken. That’s not to say any of them were wrong – in fact they were often for the best – but it took me a while to realise I wasn’t the only one that could steer the ship. Once I got over that I began to quite enjoy it. Bill’s is lucky. It’s not a made-up name. We have got a heritage and a culture. And we’ve been able to scale that.
Bill’s has had a tough time of it lately, why do you think that is?
Suddenly there was an over-saturation of casual dining places in some areas, especially in the smaller market towns. It wasn’t as bad for us as it was for some, but we were exposed. I almost see Bill’s as a sort of anti-chain restaurant, we try and take an individual approach to every one of our sites. During some of our growth we tried to behave like a chain, and that often didn’t work out for us.
There were also a lot of changes at the top of the company…
Yes there were a few different regimes. People kept coming in and changing things, and then leaving the business for whatever reason. That was problematic. But Richard Caring [the owner of Bill’s] wants the best, and some people didn’t quite deliver that. However, the biggest problem was that we weren’t perceived as a place to go into in the evenings. One of our biggest competitive advantages is that we’re very strong on breakfast, brunch and lunch, but in a tough market you’ve got to make use of all the day parts, and that includes dinner.
How did you go about making Bill’s more evenings friendly?
Richard Caring charged the senior team to be more aspirational and perhaps a bit more leftfield, too. The aim was to glam it up a bit without forgetting that breakfast is our lifeblood. We took three restaurants outside the rest of the company and approached things differently. We tried new looks while keeping the foundation of Bill’s. In the end it wasn’t one big thing, it was lots of small things working together, including more comfortable chairs, better tableware and getting the servers to top-up the wine. It’s still a brand for everyone but the new sites are places that people might get dressed up for on a Saturday night. Within a few weeks we noticed a big jump in sales. We’ve now refurbished about half the estate as a result.
What about your recent refurbishment of your Manchester restaurant…
Spinningfields is something we’re very proud of as a group. In the early days of Bill’s I used to get up at 3am to put out the fruit and vegetables and help with the cooking. At 7am when we opened up to the public it gave me a real buzz – people loved the way the place looked and felt. The Manchester launch gave me that feeling, which is amazing as it’s essentially a restaurant located within a glass box. It’s a feast for the eyes; there are loads of different layers. To me everything there tells a story.
What about the food?
I think we had lost our way with the food a bit. We made it a bit too easy for ourselves, and by doing that you often make things worse for the guests. Everything is now focused around seasonality.
How do you achieve, fresh, seasonal food as a large restaurant group?
Our offer is necessarily quite complex – it’s not like we just do pizza or pasta. It’s varied. It’s proper cooking and we have lots of different kitchen sections. What we do is very skills intensive. You have to make it difficult because you need to give the guest more, whether that’s service or food.
Tell us about Bill’s journey from being a greengrocer to becoming a national group?
I ran Bill’s as just a greengrocer until 2000 when Lewes flooded. We ended up using the insurance money to add a restaurant. We were very fortunate to win several awards and attract lots of good reviews but we didn’t take a huge amount of notice, we were just doing what we enjoyed doing. A number of high-profile people came to look at what we were doing, and one of them was Chris Benians (one of the key people behind Strada and Côte). That led to a meeting with Richard Caring at 7.30am in Bill’s Lewes, and then we went onto Bill’s Brighton, which had recently opened. The rest is history.
In scaling the business you’ve lost the greengrocery element - is that a source of regret?
Greengrocery is labour intensive. It’s a live show and there’s a real skill to it, and it’s a skill that very few people have got. It’s something that was impossible to roll out. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think to myself that I’d love to be a greengrocer again. But my wife always tells me I’ll only like it for a week.