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News of Bill Ellis Barbecue’s sudden closure Wednesday night stunned many, but for the organizers of 14 catered parties and 15 events planned for the on-site convention center, the announcement was panic-inducing.
“I had just left for work. My fiancé works early in the morning and was watching the news on break,” said Kat Jessick, an Apex bride who had hired Bill’s to cater her April 13 wedding in Pittsboro. “He called me after seeing a story that Bill’s was closing and told me I needed to call them immediately.
“I panicked at the very beginning when I heard and I’m still panicking.”
Restaurant representatives broke the news to The Wilson Times and 55 employees Wednesday. Following Bill Ellis’ death in 2017, the business — which includes a large restaurant with to-go operations, a convention center and fleet of catering vehicles — was left to his widow Tracy. Bill Ellis’ sister-in-law, Tanya Neville, said the closure was not a rash decision, but one that was made following much contemplation.
“To some degree, it feels like Bill’s death all over again, but it’s a different hurt. Another part of me is gone,” Tracy Ellis said in a statement. “Like thousands of Wilsonians, it was my first job. I walked in these doors when I was in high school. I started as a waitress, then catering all over the eastern U.S. Over half of my life has been working here and at Bill’s side in countless business meetings.”
Snow Hill native Kenneth Carmon said he was bewildered when he and two others stopped at the barbecue restaurant en route from Washington, D.C. to Florida.
“This is where we always stopped,” Carmon said. “I love everything about Bill’s Barbecue. I was here in September when I stopped on my way back to Maryland to get some barbecue and coleslaw through the drive-thru.”
There was no sign on the business to tell customers of the closure, but cones blocked the popular drive-thru and there was a flurry of activity as employees tied up loose ends. Neville said employees will be paid Friday for work completed through Wednesday and staff insurance benefits will be paid through the end of the month.
Neville said 14 catering events and 15 parties at the convention center were scheduled from February through year-end.
“The office staff are working on getting in touch with everyone this week and next to get full refunds out on ones that made deposits,” she said.
Jessick said she had already spent $300 as a deposit for Bill’s to bring a food truck to her wedding at Forest Hall at Chatham Mills and feed more than 100 people barbecue, chicken, sides and drinks. She had planned on paying more Friday, but now will use that money to find another food truck.
“We aren’t dead-set on barbecue,” she said. “I’ve done some website inquiries and gotten a few back, but two of them are already booked for April.”
Many customers disappointed by Bill’s closure recalled memories of eating at the restaurant as kids, but Jessick said she had never had its food until a few months back when Bill’s catered a luncheon she attended in Wilmington.
“The owners or somebody who knew they were about to close should have said something. I wish I had found out from them instead of TV or Facebook or whatever,” she said. “I just want my money back. I don’t really need an explanation. I just need the money back.”