Bill's Restaurant founder talks to us about the evolution of his brand and how it all comes back to the produce
Bill Collison has come a long way from ‘picking, pruning and cultivating the land’ on his father’s fruit farm. When a little market barrow came up in his home town, he started selling the produce they grew and from this seed germinated the very first Bill’s.
Almost 20 years on from that first tiny café, Bill has restaurants all over the UK. He hates the word 'chain,' however, and still considers it a family business.
My heritage is on the plate. I’m always asking: What’s in season? What can make it exciting?
“My first Bill’s was just fresh produce piled everywhere. We did breakfast and brunch. We never opened after 5pm at night or at weekends. What we didn’t sell at the market, the chefs would turn into a soup or a stew.”
Bill talks fondly of those simpler times. The restaurant industry is almost unrecognisably different now and he has had to evolve and mutate his business many times over the years.
“There was no major game plan," he continues. "There are things in hindsight I wouldn’t have done and things that I’d do over and over again. I think life’s like that in general. It’s about being that fast fish. It used to be the big fish and now it’s the fast fish. You have to be quick. It’s a different world.
“We used to stop people from taking photographs because we didn’t want people copying us. The chef used to make these massive cakes with delphiniums coming out of them. He used to say, if anyone takes a photograph, they’ll copy us. Now we’re like, please take photographs!”
Speaking of changes, this year, Bill closed his popular restaurant on John Dalton Street and opened a new site next to Carluccio’s in Spinningfields. He explains that the building works going on around the restaurant became an insurmountable issue.
“The other location became a building site. We had scaffolding around it for three years.”
This new site is an opportunity for Bill to flex his creative muscles. He tells me he decorates his restaurants in his own personal style, using items he might have in his own home, including some pieces from his own collection.
“I tried to make the new place glamorous but a bit tongue in cheek and kitsch. I’ve used items of beauty in an unusual way.”
It’s like the opulent living room of an eccentric aunt who has spent decades collecting vintage curiosities. There are ornate mirrors of all shapes and sizes and colourful pictures of cats or pinned butterflies. It’s an explosion of jewel greens and jungle florals. Fringed lampshades compete with chandeliers. Stone busts next to garden ornaments. It’s all so busy that it’s hard to take in but somehow it works. When Bill tells me about his ‘gypsy’ background. It makes sense. He talks about the hearty but simple dishes he would eat during his itinerant childhood.
“We had something called Joe Grey and Tom Brown made in this big pot. Joe Grey had tomato, potatoes, olive oil, butter and water just reduced down and we’d have it with a big loaf of bread. If we were lucky we’d have Tom Brown which was the same thing but with bacon and mushrooms.”
One of the biggest changes in the industry in recent times is the rise of veganism. Bill is enthusiastic.
“Vegetables have never had such a stage. Then there’s the chickpeas, the butter beans, the different grains you can put with them. I think things like butternut squash can be so much more exciting than meat substitutes. But saying that, we did Veganuary last year and we had a soya pulled duck substitute on the menu and people loved it. A lot of vegans like the taste and flavour of meat, they just don’t like the way it’s farmed.
“My heritage is on the plate. I’m always asking: What’s in season? What can make it exciting? What can I get in that’s different that will make people want to come back? I want it to have great provenance, I want to know where the veg comes from.
“I’ve picked every fruit, every vegetable. It’s in my DNA. If we can’t do it right, what chance has anyone else? We’re so lucky really. We’ve got a massive opportunity to get it right."
While vegetables are the star of Bill's menus more now than ever, there is plenty for everyone; from burgers to pies, as well as crowd pleasing chicken dishes. Bill is as proud of his staff, who he describes as ‘kind and welcoming’, as he is of his food. He says he still loves what he does and is happy to still be here doing it. A family man, he eats in his own restaurants regularly.
“We had Christmas dinner with the extended family in my local Bill’s. It’s so nice when you see your family enjoying it. I was really proud. Bill’s has always been a place to go with your family. At a Christmas party, they’re entrusting you with their big occasion. Christmas is a big deal for me because I don’t want to let anyone down. I make sure I study every detail.
“You can come here with your gran, your aunt, your mum and dad or your lover and they’ll enjoy it. There’s something for everybody.”
Bill’s is open now and taking bookings for Christmas and beyond.
Bill's Spinningfields, 3 Hardman Square, Manchester M3 3EB