‘It’s like a death.’ Bill’s Barbecue closes in Wilson after 56 years.

Bill Ellis, founder of Bill Ellis BBQ, poses with one of his trucks in 1987. Ellis died Monday, Feb. 27, 2017 at age 83.
Bill Ellis, founder of Bill Ellis BBQ, poses with one of his trucks in 1987. Ellis died Monday, Feb. 27, 2017 at age 83. News & Observer file photo

Bill’s Barbecue, a sprawling campus devoted to smoked pork, closed Wednesday night after five decades of feeding Wilson and generations of barbecue tourists.

Bill’s was named for owner Bill Ellis, who in 1963 turned a hot dog stand into one of North Carolina’s largest barbecue operations. Ellis died in 2017 at 83 from complications related to a broken hip. He had retired from the restaurant in 2015, according to previous reporting in The News & Observer.

After Ellis died, his widow, Tracy Ellis, took over the business, with help from her family, said her sister, Tayna Neville in a phone interview Thursday. Neville said the family made the decision to close Tuesday and notified Bill’s staff of 50 employees Wednesday night in a meeting. Bill’s closing was first reported by the Wilson Times.

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Neville said the family members all have full time jobs and own other businesses, but tried to keep Bill’s running for as long as they could. Ultimately, it was too much to take on, Neville said.

“It’s very hard,” Neville said. “It feels like a death. It feels like Bill has passed all over again. But Bill’s Barbecue, the name will live on. Its legacy will live on as the best barbecue in Wilson.”

Over the years, Bill’s Barbecue grew into something of a behemoth, starting with a 26-seat restaurant and ending up as a multi-building complex with a buffet and 850-seat restaurant, a convention center and a large catering operation, plus a working farm.

Ellis owns the Bill’s property, but Neville said no decisions have been made about what will happen to the land or buildings.

Neville said closing Bill’s Barbecue came after three years of weighing possibilities for the business’ future.

“Bill himself wanted to have something final for after he left,” Neville said. “He looked at all the options. He tried to sell it, we did everything. This decision wasn’t overnight and wasn’t without daily prayers.”

Some restaurants remain open for a few days or weeks following the decision to close, but Neville said that may have left the restaurant without a staff during the final days.

“I want people to know we’re paying the employees,” Neville said. “We’re paying insurance. Just because we shut the doors doesn’t mean we’ve stopped completely. We would never do that to the staff. Bill Ellis’ name is on this, it’s his legacy, and we don’t want it to be remembered like that.”

Neville said upcoming catering events and parties will be refunded.

The closing of Bill’s Barbecue leaves Parker’s Barbecue as Wilson’s remaining ‘cue restaurant landmark. Parker’s has been serving barbecue since 1946.

The past year has been a challenging one for North Carolina’s oldest barbecue restaurants. Allen & Son in Chapel Hill, often cited as among the very best in the South, closed quietly in early December. Near the end of 2018, Durham barbecue restaurant Bullock’s suffered the loss of its owner Tommy Bullock, who died at 79. Bullock’s remains open.

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.