This has been Bill E. Stitt’s year. A high-on-the-hog kind of year.
The founder and owner of Bill-E’s Small Batch Bacon and Bill-E’s the Restaurant, both in Fairhope, was recognized as a Silver Retailer of the Year by the Alabama Retail Association (sales $1 million to $5 million annually; Stitt says these numbers apply independently to his bacon company and his restaurant).
He was named Alumnus of the Year in the School of Applied Sciences (Nutrition and Hospitality Management Program) at the University of Mississippi. Three major shippers and a solid online presence have allowed him to steadily grow his bacon business, putting more slices in homes and restaurants across the country. Bill-E’s the Restaurant is hopping and has become another Gulf Coast destination. And he’s even added dedicated spaces for creatives to work right in the middle of the sprawling, rustic, smoked meat-scented compound that is home to both the bacon business and his restaurant.
I sat down with Bill-E recently for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read that story here and see a cool video by my partner Brittany Faush.
After weathering Covid disruptions and a couple of hurricanes, Stitt says he was ready for a good year.
“This industry is a choice. It’s just something that grabs a hold of you, and you go through times where you’re just like, ‘How am I going to make payroll? How am I gonna pay the rent?’ It’s very trying, but it’s a wonderful industry. I don’t go to bed at night or wake up in the morning doubting what I do. This year and last year have brought some really interesting, fun opportunities.”
Known to friends old and brand new as “Bill E.” (that’s “E for Ernest” but the other spelling seems apt, too), this Alabama maker and restaurateur is happy to share his momentum by promoting other makers and their products from Alabama and neighboring states.
He regularly uses Dr. Bill’s Cane & Maple Syrup on the gourmet charcutière boards he’s quickly becoming known for creating. He calls them Bill-E’s Boards and works with his daughter, Helen Hanson, to make them. They generally are small, medium and large, but Stitt is not afraid to go really big. “They should be the focal point of your gathering,” he says. During the holidays, he and his daughter created a 12-foot grazing table at an elegant home on Mobile Bay. The impressive spread featured 10 different artisan cheeses; eight kinds of select meats; dips; Italian caponata on artichoke bottoms; pickles; fruits; nuts; jams; deviled eggs; candied cranberries that looked like they had been dusted with snow; a large Spanish ham on a holder with a Bill-E’s-branded knife for slicing; and, of course, Bill-E’s bacon cut into savory, bite-size chunks. Circling back to the syrup, Stitt says that Dr. Bill is a real doctor in New Orleans. “He’s a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, and his syrup is fortified with Vitamin D. So, it’s good for you.”
Another favorite product is KEY’s Southern Spice. “It’s a young lady that grew up here on the Eastern Shore, and she came up with a spice blend. Her father and mother helped her create that from a little bottle of spice to a brand. Now it’s on my menu. If you order anything blackened, it’s dusted with KEY’s Southern Spice,” he says.
“There’s another company in Morgan City, Louisiana, that makes this all-natural ketchup called D.a.T SaUcE. I’m learning more about their brand, and I plan on bringing them onto my menu next year because I’m a burger joint, and I think you should have an all-natural ketchup. … It’s going to cost more, but I think it’s going to add value to our plates when the guests know that we take that much care in the selection of our ketchup.
“As a maker,” Stitt says, “there’s nothing I respect more than meeting another maker. … There’s a story behind every one of them. I like to learn that story. I like to share that story.”
Stitt is a good person to have in your corner; his bacon has attracted national attention. TasteofHome.com picked it as the best bacon in Alabama. Food writer Scott Gold, “America’s Bacon Critic,” said it was one of the four best bacons in the nation.
Stitt is a stickler for how it’s made.
He sources his pork (delivered three times a week) from 25 Midwestern family farms that raise Berkshire Red and Chantilly White pigs, which are especially meaty and flavorful. (“Remember the pig in Charlotte’s Web? That’s the Chantilly White,” Stitt says.) He uses pink curing salt and brown sugar made with real molasses to cure the meat for eight days. “Not seven. Not nine. Eight.” The pork bellies are turned every other day before being cold smoked with hickory in electric smokers (for reliability and consistency); these smokers are named for childhood friends and college roommates (also reliable and consistent). The result is exceptionally tender meat that’s sweet and savory but, more importantly, “still tastes like pork,” he says. “It’s not buried in smoke. It’s not covered up with some crazy flavors where you forget that it’s bacon.”
This is a process Stitt spent years perfecting. Actually, this obsession goes back decades. Stitt learned how to smoke meat from a family friend when he was a teenager. His father, knowing young Stitt was interested in the food industry, asked the local butcher to teach his son about making and selling food. As Stitt was heading off to Ole Miss, his mentor told him: “Before you leave, I’d like to teach you how to make bacon the way our ancestors did.”
Lesson learned, Stitt produces more than 3,000 pounds of bacon each week that are distributed by U.S. Foods, Ben E. Keith and Louisiana-based Perrone & Sons to groceries and restaurants across the Southeast and beyond. You can get Bill-E’s Small Batch Bacon at most Piggly Wiggly stores, or you can order it directly through Goldbelly.com, a partnership that Stitt says has made a world of difference by streamlining his direct-to-consumer business.
Stitt says his target market is the home cook as well as chefs in restaurants—neither have time to cure their own bacon, but they do amazing things with his. “Chef Irv Miller (at Jackson’s Steakhouse) over in Pensacola … buys my pork belly and puts nice little slivers of it underneath his (fried Gulf Coast) oysters,” Stitt says. Chef Brody Olive at Perdido Beach Resort has it on his menus, too. Others mix it into their pimento cheese, they use the pan drippings for savory salad dressings. They win awards with it at competitions.
While he’s best known for this bacon, Stitt started his food career in restaurants. When he graduated with a hospitality management degree from Ole Miss, he joined Ruby Tuesday and spent two decades with that company before retiring (as national director of catering and to-go) to do his own thing in Lower Alabama. His experience in corporate food service serves him well. From the clear and clever websites to his astute and original marketing messages to the consistent and careful presentation of the food on each plate, attention to detail and thoughtful processes are evident.
All this in a rambling, ramshackle roadhouse with lots of indoor and outdoor seating and a music stage (next to the smokers “so the bacon can be serenaded”). Bacon and blues go together especially well, Stitt says. “Definitely some good, old Mississippi Delta soulful blues. … and, of course, it’s going to get some ‘80s. If I’m in there long enough, it’s going to get some Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Cult … some R.E.M.”
There’s a menu for dogs at Bill-E’s the Restaurant. “Why not?” says Stitt who saw an opportunity for more sales. “People were bringing them anyway and giving them bites of hamburgers. Now they can have their own.” There’s a bar, festive with lights, that turns out bacon-topped bloody Marys, ice-cold beers and more. There are bocce, cornhole, Jenga and other outside games as well as vintage signs (“people just keep bringing them to me”), family photos, original paintings and quirky handmade directional signage everywhere you look.
Stitt opened this restaurant in 2011 as the Old 27 Grill. (The place is on State Route 181, which used to be Baldwin County Road 27 “before the state took it.” Some folks in Fairhope have a hard time letting go of 27.) It was always under the Bill-E’s corporate umbrella, he says, but the recent rebranding made sense.
The restaurant (“where locals and vacationers throw their diets to the wind”) became his career’s second act and an outlet for his passion for smoked meat. He started curing his own supply of bacon for the restaurant and, in 2018, turned that into its own business in a USDA facility.
“We’re a burger joint that makes its own bacon,” he says. And that bacon is all over the menu.
The pork belly sandwich with homemade slaw, a fresh bun made by a local baker, caramelized onions from a nearby grower, Wickles Pickles and extra-thick slices of confit belly from around back is “all Alabama,” he says. It also was named one of the best sandwiches in America in 2018 by Restaurant Hospitality. “That sandwich went from ‘I think I’ll try it’ to being our top seller,” he says.
You can get a trio of pork belly bites (BBQ, spicy and sweet chili with a pickled egg) as an appetizer; you can add bacon to anything that doesn’t already have it or just order a few slices. There’s a lot of Mississippi-inspired comeback sauce, and that’s a delicious thing.
The Holy Cow Burger is another reason to visit. “Oh my gosh,” Stitt says, “it’s a knife- and-fork-burger with heavy cream and Worcestershire and the drippings from the beef and peppercorns … Once the burger’s all made, you pick the skillet up and you pour the sauce over the top of the cheese, and it just creeps out into the French fries. It’s pretty killer.” The name? According to the menu, “It will make you say, ‘Holy Cow, someone figured out how to put the cream BACK in the cow!’ (See where a career in corporate food marketing comes in handy?)
End your meal with more bacon.
“Try our hot pies,” Stitt says, “and ask the cooks to wrap them in bacon.” These are seasonal and recently it was a vanilla custard, which pairs nicely with bacon. Or order the Chocolate Belly—savory, crispy chunks of pork belly arranged alongside sweet-salted caramel brownie bites under a drizzle of bourbon-brown sugar glaze with a smoked cherry on top.
It’s a lot. But Stitt dreams big.
He plans to expand his production facility beyond bacon. “I would like to do all parts of the pig—the butts and the shoulders and the ribs and all the fun stuff. … So, the plan is to find the right facility—or build the right facility—and do it all right here … to be able to really ramp up the production but definitely not cut our process or anything that way but to just scale it.”
And he plans to expand the brand, too, with Little Bill-E’s. “The goal is to have little bacon and burger joints. I would like for the first five to be within driving distance, and we’re looking at communities that are similar to Fairhope but have schools—colleges and universities. We want to grow the brand that way.” Stitt says he’s looking to get this going within the next two years.
He’s already made some significant additions to his current space, and the restaurant and the bacon facility are not the only reasons to visit.
A conference room near his offices is available for events and meetings (everything from baby showers to business meetings; it can accommodate 20-30 people; there’s a whiteboard and a big flatscreen). Two separate areas around the corner offer spaces for creatives to work and produce podcasts (the equipment is already there). Outdoor seating is easily rearranged to accommodate speakers in these spaces. Stitt would like to see this used as a corporate retreat site.
In the meantime, and most weekdays, Bill-E’s bacon comes out of the smoker around 10:30 a.m. and people can come early for lunch and watch that process (sort of like what happens at Krispy Kreme, Stitt says).
Stitt envisions all this as a “bacon-themed destination.” Maybe he can go ahead and check that box.
Bill-E’s Small Batch Bacon and Bill-E’s the Restaurant
19992 Alabama Highway 181
251-209-2129 FOR BACON
Monday-Wednesday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Thursday-Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sunday 10:30 a.m. until they get tired