You can take the farmer out of the field but not the field out of the farmer. This is true, literally and figuratively, when describing Bill Collison.
Collison, a grower by first profession, is the founder of Bill’s, a greengrocer that over the past two decades has evolved into a wildly popular 80-plus-unit casual dining chain. It’s signature, and key to success, is serving cutting-edge British dishes all rooted in fresh seasonal produce.
Farm-to-fork innovation, especially how trends and technology play a role, is the topic of today's Q&A session at the 2019 London Produce Show’s Foodservice Forum at the JW Marriott Grosvenor House on Park Lane. Host Jason Danciger will dialogue with farmer-turned-foodservice guru Collison.
Carol Bareuther, RD, contributing editor for Produce Business, talked with Collison about his background, current strategies and future goals.
Q. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get interested in fresh produce?
A. I started as a grower, like my father and grandfather. Growing up, we had 15 to 20 acres in the southeast of the UK, between Brighton and Lewes. Not a huge amount, but a lot of glass-like greenhouses where we grew tomatoes, cucumbers and some interesting things. There were also outdoor crops like beets and potatoes, apples and pears.
In the summer, we kids used to travel to Kent, which is the garden of England, to pick fruit. Every field there has fruit, currants or raspberries. Kids back then were encouraged to work the land. We used to do all the harvesting. Not today… kids today want to go into media or art.
Actually, it was the same with me at the time. I didn’t like my life. I didn’t think it was glamorous enough. So, I tried other things. I became a chef for a while, and then I went back to what I knew best, which is fresh produce. I knew lots of growers. I knew the industry. I was able to go buy from these growers and then wholesale and retail it. Now I’ve come full circle as my goal in the future is to go back to being a grower.
Q. I understand your first retail operation was a greengrocer you opened in Lewes. Then, a flood wiped the business out, causing you to reopen but with a twist.
A. That’s true. However, I made things from fresh produce from day one. I just didn’t have a café then. It was to go. So, if cauliflower was in season, we’d have cauliflower heads that you could buy to take home as well as cauliflower tart, cauliflower soup, cauliflower salad and more. That’s what we’d be selling. But then the flood happened. It gave us an amazing chance, and from bad luck came something very special. We added a little more spice, a café or restaurant, where you could sit down and eat as well. We added extra things to the menu too, like coffee, and that was nearly 20 years ago now.
Q. In that nearly two decades, Bill’s has grown from one café to an 82-unit national chain. How did you accomplish this? What did it take? What role did fresh produce play?
A. When I first opened the restaurant, everything that we had left at the end of the night was cooked and made into food for the next day. If it didn’t go in retail, it went into the salad, or stew, or pie or as ingredients for stock. We never wasted anything. Although we were really busy with that first shop, we could never make any money. It was all like a soup kitchen in some ways. At first, we said we’d open another restaurant quickly, but it took us five years to get the model into the right shape to do so. When we did, in Brighton, straight away it was a success.
Q. What did you learn during that five-year puzzling process that continues to be a foundation of your successful business today?
A. Well, to start, I should say that at this time we won several food awards, national food awards. Like best newcomers to the industry awards. These were up against people with lots more infrastructure and a lot more going on than we had. Plus, it seemed every week we were in a magazine, a picture or recipe of something we were doing, or some reviewer reviewed us.
I never took much notice of it because I was making the coleslaw. I thought back then that I was the only one who could make the coleslaw, so I was a bit foolish in some ways. But other people sat up and took notice. This included investors, and we decided to take on investor, Richard Caring. I still work with Richard today. He was very interested in being the best thing out there. I never thought we’d grow to the extent we did, but we grew very quickly. In fact, too quickly if I think back.
Q. How so?
A. As we grew, we made things easier for ourselves. I think the person who ultimately loses out in that case is the guest. A good example is in procurement. A certain number of invoices and delivery notes come to a restaurant every day. So, if the milk man can deliver tomatoes, even though the tomatoes might not be as good as you’d like, it’s easier with one delivery.
We went on like that for a long time and, in doing so, we lost our way a bit. Luckily, we finally noticed and as a result went back to our roots, back to fresh, back to seasonality. We started getting growers to grow for us. It was easier then because we were a certain size. A grower is more willing to work with you and go that extra mile when you have 82 restaurants rather than two. So, making it harder for us keeps it good for our guests. I know that sounds bonkers. But, I think people who put the margin ahead of the product and the guest are only going to fail.
Q. Now, what fascinates me about Bill’s is the juxtaposition of simple fresh produce and high-tech offerings like being able to book a table, order and get monetary benefits for future meals right in the palm of your hand via iPhone. Are you a tech guru too?
A. It’s not me. I’m such a dinosaur. I’m always afraid of doing something wrong and having 40,000 or 60,000 people to see something I don’t want them to. The people who work for me are young, enthusiastic and understand it far more than I do. I’ve got the eye, though, that knows when something is right or wrong.
I know when apps are working well or if an app gives away too much. I think when you over-gift on apps, it makes you look needy and you should never be needy. In reality, we’re not even where we want to be with it (technology). We want to be further down the line. I want to give people more knowledge via our apps and website.
When I say knowledge, I mean more of our procurement at the farm, talk about our links with food, how it’s grown, who the farmer is, how to make dishes, there is so much more. It’s such an exciting time. There’s such a world of opportunity.
Q. What about technology such as social media? Did your Instagram, for example, help in your expansion into communities your brand wasn’t known?
A. Definitely so. When we had just the two restaurants, people use to come in and take photographs. We’d create these amazing cakes and pies with delphiniums coming out of them. It looked amazing. I was never bothered by it, but our head chef didn’t like it. He thought someone was going to copy him.
Today, it’s how people communicate. So, we are now making it so that every moment you walk by, there’s something you can take a picture of. My marketing team is always looking for something that is new, fun or quirky. Also, we’ve gone from having a national marketing strategy to a local one. Each restaurant has its own marketing person, each area has its own marketing manager and they look to market locally. By that I mean they get involved with the community like the town’s festivals.
It’s a lot of what we did when we had one or two restaurants. It’s a way to get ourselves to be the place people relate to as being home to them. Once you’ve done that, you’ve got a business that will last forever.
Q. One of the topics you’ll touch on during your Q&A with Jason is revitalizing and revolutionizing the use of fresh produce and the plant-based trend we’re seeing now. Could you give us a sneak peek on your thoughts in this area?
A. The world is thinking to eat less meat, and we need to make sure we’re a part of that. Bill’s has always been something for everybody, so we’re not going to take our best local sausage off our menu at breakfast. We’re not going to take away our sea bass from the evening menu. But what we will do is have more vegetarian options, more fun with fresh produce.
I think it still needs to be glamorous. Something that you can feed yourself on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday night and feel good about what you’ve eaten, and then on Saturday and Sunday come back and find the most glorious stack of really indulgent pancakes. Something for everybody and is all around fresh. Fresh is king.
Q. Speaking of fresh, you mentioned wanted to get back to growing. Can you explain?
A. A goal of mine is to have a Bill’s in the country right where I also have my own farm and grow. I’m someone who’s potty for fresh produce. I love growing it, eating it, and there’s no better time than when I’m on a farm. I’m not saying it will happen tomorrow, but it’s definitely something I’m going to do.
Q. Lastly, what is the take-home message you’d like to leave the LPS Foodservice Forum’s audience with after your Q&A?
A. Put fresh first and bundle everything else around it. But, make it interesting, make it quirky. There are no new ideas. Go back in time but add your own stamp to it. And, if you’re starting something new, make sure it has a bit of heritage to it. Never do anything just to make money, do it because you care.
It is an inspiring story. Bill may want to do that farm sooner rather than later. In the US, Wegmans has had great successoperating an organic farm as a kind of learning environment for its suppliers. Its farms are also great for PR and tours provide a “front page” for its whole operation when interfacing with consumers.
In the US, though, we haven’t seen much success with offering more vegetarian options. The movement has been to more veg-centric cuisine.
The problem in increasing produce consumption is that as long as the protein is the chef’s priority and produce a side dish, consumption of produce is somewhat fixed. If we can move people to eating a stir fry with protein used as a flavoring or a Cauliflower crust pizza with some cheese and meat, we will have more success than rigidly banning all non-vegan options.
In any case, it is a most inspiring story to grow from just an idea to a major chain.