WILSON, N.C. (WNCN) — Bill Ellis, the man behind the name that had grown synonymous with barbecue in Eastern North Carolina and beyond, died Monday at age 83.
Hanging on the wall beside the door at “Bill’s World Famous Barbeque & Chicken,” is a photo of a young 30-year-old Ellis standing in front of the big buffet building’s predecessor: a small structure where Ellis sold hamburgers and hot dogs beginning in 1963.
Ellis, whose barbecue empire had grown to include the buffet, a drive-thru, convention center and catering business on the same lot where he began 54 years ago this week, died from complications due to breaking his hip last week in a fall.
“You would see him quite often here working all the time. Big name. I don’t know many people in the United States that doesn’t know the name Bill Ellis,” said Sharon Simpson, who said she never personally knew the man behind the name of the place where she’s eaten for decades.
“As long as I was able to chew solid food I’ve been coming here. Let’s put it that way,” she joked.
Longtime employees remember Ellis, who retired in 2015, as more than just a boss.
“It was tough because he was my buddy,” said Frankie Knight, who has worked at Bill’s on and off since 1989.
“It’s like losing a family member,” said Thomas Forbes, a longtime employee for 28 years.
“There’s just nobody left like him anymore. I mean he’d do anything in the world for you. He’d give you the shirt off his back. He’d expect you to work for it. He’d do anything in the world for you. He was a great man,” Forbes said.
Horace Etheridge, who has worked at Bill’s off and on since 1985, recalls Ellis asking him to travel to Mississippi for a few days to help after Hurricane Katrina. They were there serving hundreds of factory workers for more than a month.
“We were the only kitchen available and I was working for, yes, we were working for Bill and the people at the same time. I still tear up,” Etheridge said.
Ellis and his staff knew devastation first hand after Hurricane Floyd.
“Seven and a half feet – literally wiped the place out,” Etheridge said.
“He came back three weeks stronger than ever. Two 18-wheelers in the parking lot – used that as a drive-up window.”
The business continued to grow, now catering regularly to places outside of Wilson — even California and Canada.
Now, in the wake of Ellis’ death, “Bill’s” continues.
“We’re going to just try to keep going what he started,” said Knight.
“It’s a legacy. You got to keep it going,” Forbes said.
“Bill’s” usually only closes on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but will close this Thursday for Ellis’ funeral.
He leaves behind a wife, two children and six grandchildren.