Wilson’s barbecue king, Bill Ellis, dies 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.
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 Ellis, a barbecue legend who built an empire from a humble hot dog stand on the outskirts of Wilson, died Monday of complications from a broken hip.

William Lawrence “Bill” Ellis was 83 when he died.

Bill Ellis’ Barbecue started serving its signature dish as well as sandwiches and chicken in 1963 in a space that could accommodate 26 diners. When he retired in 2015, he left an 850-seat restaurant, a fleet of catering trucks, an 18,000-square-foot convention center and a hog farm with more than 450 sows.

The catering semi-trailers and mobile kitchens crisscross the country carrying the Ellis brand of barbecue so it can be “served anywhere, anytime, one to a million,” the company’s website says. Ellis was known as a barbecue missionary, carrying the gospel of Eastern North Carolina barbecued pork from coast to coast, and his restaurant was a barbecue mecca.

Ellis was a broad-shouldered man with gray-flecked curly hair, an easy laugh and a good-old-boy manner, News & Observer reporter Guy Munger wrote in a 1987 profile of Ellis.

The pit master said he kept an eye on quality, “from the squeal to the meal,” and said his success came from working long days and paying close attention to detail.

“The harder you work, the better your luck is,” he said. “And I’ve worked about 25 years night and day.”

Ellis’ sister-in-law Tanya Neville said Ellis was a charitable man who worked long hours but always did it with a smile on his face.

“His mind was always working,” she said. “He was always thinking about things, and how to help people.”

Ellis is survived by his wife, Tracy Bunting Ellis, daughter Vickie Whitfield and son Lawrence Ellis, according to his obituary. He is preceded in death by his son Martin Keith “Marty” Ellis and his first wife, Lorraine Ellis.

Ellis was born April 25, 1933, and grew up on his father’s Wayne County tobacco farm. He dropped out of school after eighth grade and worked several jobs to help support his family, including one at nearby Parker’s Barbecue, a barbecue and chicken restaurant in another part of Wilson.

Ellis then served as an Army medic at Garmisch in Germany, The N&O profile said. He also worked as an electrician and garment manufacturer closer to home.

When he bought a hot dog stand at age 29, the joint mostly served sandwiches and chicken, but the barbecue that came out of Ellis’ small kitchen was most popular.

The business grew, and Ellis eventually built his own 60-acre pig farm and assembled a fleet of catering trucks that range from small panel trucks to 18-wheelers.

He also sponsored a stock car racing team, and teamed up with Richard Petty to market a board game based on the sport.

A tough blow came in 1999 when the restaurant was flooded by Hurricane Floyd, which caused damage that Ellis estimated at $2.5 million to $3 million. The water ruined computers and kitchen equipment, as well as catering trucks.

“It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to Wilson,” Ellis told The N&O then. “A flood is worse than a tornado. It just sits there and ruins everything it touches.”

But Ellis’ signature pig cookers weren’t down for long. Within a few days, one of his trucks was serving his well-known smoked pork once again.

The business came back strong and has continued expanding. In 2001, the company’s convention center opened.

The cookers will briefly be shut off again this week, so employees can attend Ellis’ funeral.

The family will receive friends Wednesday from 5 to 8 p.m. at Joyner’s Funeral Home at 4100 Raleigh Road Parkway in Wilson. The funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at Wilson’s Forest Hills Baptist Church, 1407 Forest Hills Road.