Welcome to Podcast Episode #22 of the Mobile Alabama Business Podcast with Bill E. Stitt. My name is Marcus Neto. I own Blue Fish Design Studio. We're a digital marketing and web design company located downtown on Dauphin Street. I'm the host of Mobile Alabama Business Podcast, where we talk to local entrepreneurs and business owners about their businesses and how they got started. I'd like to thank you for spending time with us today.
In today's episode, I sit down with the really great guy. Bill E. is the owner of Old 27 Grill in Fairhope. Old 27 Grill is a music venue and restaurant. Bill E. is also a bacon maker. I have not met someone that likes bacon more than myself in a long time, but Bill E. makes me look like an amateur. He's really a friendly guy with a big heart that makes some really great food, so let's dive right in with Bill E. Stitt.
Marcus: Today I'm sitting down with Bill E. Stitt. Welcome to the Podcast, Bill E..
Bill E: Glad to be here.
Marcus: On LinkedIn, I saw you go by the title of 'Owner and Bacon Maker at Old 27 Grill'. So to get us started, tell us a little bit about your business. How did you end up owning Old 27 Grill?
Bill E: Well, I've always been in the restaurant business since a teenager, from washing dishes to helping people set restaurants up a bit from the beginning, and I worked for a Ruby Tuesday brands for over 20 years in all facets, from operations to go and establishing a catering program for the company. I'd always wanted to have my own place, and this one just kind of evolved in and just kind of happened for me.
Marcus: How long have you owned the restaurant?
Bill E: This coming April will be five years.
Marcus: Very nice, and tell people a little bit about Old 27 Grill, because they may not be familiar with what kind of food you offer, where it's located, things like that.
Bill E: Well, it's a super casual dining restaurant located on Highway 181, which of course for years was County Road 27, until the State came over and made it a State Highway 181. It's right on the city limits of Fairhope, just outside of town. It was a little daycare facility and a school for years and a guy had come in and turned it into a catering and small restaurant. I didn't even know it existed. And my goal was to go to downtown Fairhope and open this killer place, I had it all planned out, and every time I would get close to finding the right spot, something would block it, whether the numbers didn't work or there wasn't enough parking or... One of the buildings even caught on fire before I was even to make a deal!
Bill E: And I was about to give it up, and my son who was 11 or 12 at the time, he and I were coming back from a trip down in Lower Baldwin County and he says, "Daddy, when are you going to get this restaurant you’ve been talking about?" I said, "Son, I pray about it, I talk about it. I know it's going to happen." And just about then, we passed this guy walking out on the road with a cardboard box painted up like Little Rascals letters that said “Equipment For Sale”, and he goes, "Daddy, let's go talk to that man," and we pulled in and bought about everything he had that night, and that's where it started.
Marcus: That's amazing. I really had no idea. Now, an interesting side note, the birthing of this Podcast actually happened over burgers at Old 27 Grill.
Bill E: Wow!
Marcus: Yeah. So we, Jared and I, met a number of years ago through a mutual friend, but then just out of the blue, we decided that we needed to get together and talk about what kind of project we might be able to work on together and the place that we chose to go to was Old 27 Grill. I have to say, I still remember that burger to this day because it was fantastic.
Bill E: Thank you.
Marcus: It's the only burger that I think I've ever had with...and I know this is served at other places... but I'd never had it before with an egg on top, and I think I added bacon because Jared said that you make your own bacon and that and the other thing, it was fabulous. Let's talk about the bacon because anybody who is friends with me on Facebook knows that my passion is eating bacon, so it's kind of interesting that you're here talking to us today. So how did you get started in making your own bacon?
Bill E: Well, it's like a lot of staples that you have at your house in your refrigerator. Bacon is always there and my dad who's in his 80's... his answer to the question of how much bacon should we buy he goes, "whatever you buy, will be eaten."
Bill E: And he always had this other comment. He would say, "the cost of bacon has nothing to do with the quality," and that's so true. I mean, you can go into a grocery store and buy a couple of dollar pack all the way up to a $10 dollar pack and sometimes, that couple of dollar pack is going to be better than the other one. I've just always wanted something to do with bacon - when I was in college back in the 80's, I actually wrote a plan, a business proposal on starting my own bacon curing and processing business and my own brand called 'Bill E.'s Bacon'. I did it for a speech class and then when I worked for Ruby Tuesday, I got to visit Benton's Bacon (Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams) all the time up in Tennessee, a man who I just totally respect and think that he just really put bacon on the map. Of course, it was one of my 27 toppings for my burgers and sandwiches and salads. I said, "You know, if I'm going to have bacon..."
Marcus: Pause for just a second. Yes folks, he did say “27 toppings for his burgers”. Go ahead.
Bill E: That's right. So, actually 27 and then some now. We couldn't fit them all on the menu, but my goal was to try to produce as many of those toppings as I could. I already make my own soup, sauces and salad dressings. I have my buns baked fresh every morning, and I just got tired of seeing this case of crazy bacon coming on a truck every twice a week. I was just like, "You know, let's go back to basics." I started researching and... That was years ago. I researched what is the process, and I actually went to farms and study the pigs and the hogs and then I started looking at the different ways to smoke them from electric to wood and what kind of wood. I landed with a really good smoking system, and what I realize was I want to make a lot of bacon, but I still want it to be in small batches. So I have these little small smoker cabinets and every eight days, I'm curing bacon and turning them every two days and then I slow smoke them using hickory chips and it's all done behind my stage where all the musicians are playing and singing, so of course it’s serenaded by song writers and everybody knows...
Marcus: It makes it even more sweet.
Bill E: Exactly. Serenaded bacon can taste so much better than grocery store bacon! I ramble a little bit but it's a really cool bacon. It's like it's a great piece of pork belly that I'm very proud of.
Marcus: Now that's really cool. Tell us about that process. I mean, are you, obviously, you're not butchering the hog, you're getting that pork belly from some place and then do you... I mean is it...take it from there, because I really have no clue what goes into this.
Bill E: Okay.
Marcus: I like to eat bacon, but I don't know what it takes to make bacon.
Bill E: I had been approached by some Alabama farmers to use their bellies and I've been approached by some other people to use to their bellies, but right now, what I have is the best, I guess, my base ingredient... there are very few ingredients to bacon but the number one ingredient is pork belly. If pork was to be graded, which it’s not, this would be considered prime. I'm very proud of it. It comes in fresh. It's never frozen. They're trimmed. They're skinned off. They're ready to go. And I take that belly and I took all the way back in my research to something from the 1500s, which is well before refrigeration, and I said 'What is the true and basic original curing process?' and that's what I use. A good molasses, a good strong brown sugar, a great, great Kosher salt and a tiny amount of pink curing salt, which we all have to use to make things safe, but I do not pound the bacon full of nitrates like a lot of people do, just a tiny amount of nitrites in it. Then I actually put it in the cooler box and smoke it. I mean, cure it for eight days like I said. I roll it every two days and when it's cured, it's done. Our bodies of course, are not accustomed to eating what we would call raw bacon, but I don't think it's really raw. Once it's cured, it's technically legal and safe to eat. But then we take it to the next step and then we do that slow smoke on it, starting in a cold, cold smoker and it's all done back there and if you're sitting around the restaurant while the smokers are going, I mean, you don't want to leave. It changes everything.
Marcus: That's awesome. Now, I'm going to have to hook up with you later and get some of your product, because I just love bacon. Well, let's go back just a little bit. Tell us a little bit about yourself. You alluded to having been in the food industry for quite a long time, but go back even further than that. Are you from this area?
Bill E: No, I'm not. I am from Yazoo City, Mississippi, sleepy little... can't really call it a hill town or a delta town because it's where the delta meets the hills. It was a home to a lot of wonderful people and still is. People like Jerry Clower and Zig Ziglar, Stymie from the Little Rascals, and Willy Morris, a great Southern writer who wrote “Good Old Boy” and “My Dog Skip”, and these aren't people that I just threw on their names out there. I knew them. I mean it was a kind of town where you... You know, my dad would take my brother and I to the Phillip's 66 gas station in the morning and we would sit on the curb, you know, drinking a Nehi and eating a packet of Nabs, and we had no idea who was in these little rolling chairs, you know, talking to Buddy Mayfield at a gas station and it was Jerry Clower.
Marcus: That's really cool. How did you end up here? I mean did you go to school in the area or...?
Bill E: I didn’t. I went to Ole Miss, and that’s where I met my first wife, who actually was from Mobile and that's what got me down here and then I fell in love with the place in college and then my parents found out how much I enjoyed it and they even moved down here. So this is home to me. I mean I've been here for over 20 years.
Marcus: This place has a way kind of grabbing you and making you want to stay here and tell, maybe not everybody, because we don't want everybody to move here but you know, tell those that you care about it and get them to move here.
Bill E: That is right.
Marcus: So you mentioned spending quite a bit of time in the food industry, what was that like? I mean how did you get started in that? Was it just something that you fell into in college or...?
Bill E: No. My father's... his entire life... has sold empty bags, boxes and packaging so he would throw my brother and I in a car... My brother always knew he wanted to be a doctor. I mean from dissecting stuff in junior high all the way up, he knew he wanted to be a doctor. I knew I was going to be something in business, and my dad always hoped that I would take over his business. So he would throw us in the car and we'd wake up in St. Louis, Chicago or Manhattan or wherever and he would call on clients and he would... If you made a widget and you needed to put that widget in a box by the thousands, he would show you how to do it. During all those meetings, we were having breakfast, lunch and dinner in all these just great places all over the country, from back porch restaurants to fine dining, to somewhere in between. All this time, dad thought he was grooming me to be the one to take over his business. I was falling in love with the hospitality and the food and then the people and I was like, "that's the business I'm going to be in." So I went to Ole Miss and they had just started Hospitality Management Program, so I was one of the original students in that.
Marcus: Very cool.
Bill E: And then I started washing dishes in a restaurant in Oxford, Mississippi on the Square called the Downtown Grill, which is now called Boure in a very cool historical building that John Grisham used to walk into and we’d cooked for him every day. A lot of cool history there, too.
Marcus: You said something and it kind of struck me, that you...back porch, country restaurants all the way up to fine dining and one of the things that struck me when you said that is that it doesn't really matter the type of restaurant, it can still be really good food.
Bill E: That's right.
Marcus: ...and it can also be really bad food...
Bill E: You’re exactly right.
Marcus: And so, I love to eat. I love food and it's something that I'm seeking help for but there's this... I like all types of food, so whether it's going and getting really good Asian food or getting really good Southern cooking or really fine dining, I can really appreciate the essence of what that is, right? I think so many times people just think, "Well, it's got to be x," you know. It has to be this certain caliber of restaurant which usually has a higher price tag and involves white table clothes and guys walking around with the cloth draped over their arms and stuff like that. I tell my boys and I'm teaching them about food and appreciation of food and stuff like that, that it doesn't necessarily matter about that kind of ambiance, although that is nice and there's a time for that but that you can find really good food in other places. I think that's really cool that you got to see that, maybe not realizing that at that age, but got to see that as a cross section of your travels across the United States.
Bill E: Thank you.
Marcus: Yeah. Is there an area of the business that you're putting a lot of effort into?
Bill E: Yes. Local, of course, high quality basic ingredients, certified angus beef was a big decision when I decided what kind of hamburger meat I was going to use. We're a burger joint. So I’m always going to be selling burgers, but I want to surround that with some things that are really going to bring in the moms and they're going to bring in the dad that's going to want that hand-cut rib eye and the kids that want a great hot dog or a sausage dog or even a bratwurst, but my focus right now is bacon. I think it's a portion of my brand that has a ton of potential and my goal is to find chefs that will love it and adore it and will get excited to see me knocking on their back door and showing up with a fresh pork belly, either sliced or unsliced. And for me to be able to make my first sales column, be able to spend time with the owner or the chef or any combination thereof and get to bring it to them in whole flab style so we can not just say, "Hey, send me 20 pounds of 18-22 slice per pound." We can say, "Let's think about this and let's take this quarter belly and let's slice it this way. Let's slice it that way and let's take it and let's consider a center of the plate bacon and let's look at things that can really make this stand out." And I'm having the greatest conversations from these guys, from Noble South, to Moe’s Barbecue, to Big Fish down at the beach, the Beach Club chef. I mean, I could go on and on and they're just having more fun talking pork belly.
Marcus: Right. I think I've met my match, folks. I think I've really met my match. This man is more passionate about bacon than anybody I've ever met, but I think it's fantastic because I think bacon is gotten a bad rap over the years and the truth is, that there's nothing wrong with eating it. Now if you eat too much that has a lot of the nitrates in it, there's some...but you know, I mean nitrates are in lunch meats. Nobody complains about that, right? That's a line I use on my wife all the time when she questions my bacon consumption. I have had just some fantastic dishes that were pork belly that weren't your typical sliced bacon and stuff like that. I understand what you’re saying, because it really is a piece of the pig that is not really utilized to the extent that the shoulder, the butt or whatever are...so I think it's fantastic that you are doing that. So, if you are a chef in Mobile or Baldwin County or beyond that and wants some awesome bacon, because I have had it, I can speak to its quality, give this man a call. We'll give his details here in just a little bit.
If you were talking to someone that wanted to be an entrepreneur, what's the one bit of wisdom that you would impart to them?
Bill E: Have a plan. Number 1: Write it all down and have some device or even if it's just pen and paper where you continue to go back to that and add to it and never delete your original notes, because I'm almost five years into this thing and I'm going back to page one, paragraph one on a regular basis and I’m going, "My goal getting was to do that. I haven't done it. I haven't done it yet." That was an important part of my vision, but to write it all down and to plan it and to re-plan it. Number 2: Talk to people that are successful because I guarantee you, they have been through what you're going through, they've struggled and there's been times when they worry whether they're going to make payroll and just as so many things, but talk to people that do things and do them well and seek as much advice as possible, but definitely chase what you want to do.
Marcus: That's fantastic. What are some other resources that you found helpful? I don't know if you're a reader or not, but are there any books that you've recently read that have kind of imparted something to you?
Bill E: You ask me if I'm a reader... Every day, I'm reading a lot of stuff digitally and electronically, but I always go back to some just killer cook books.
Marcus: Tell me about those.
Bill E: There's a book out there that I'm not even sure which edition it’s into right now, but if you're a foodie and you really want to get into this, whether at your house or in the business, it's called...and I can't spell it so don't ask me for that, but it's called the "Larousse Gastronomique".
Marcus: Actually, a buddy of mine who lives in Ireland has been using their bread book and the breads that he's posting to Instagram and Facebook and stuff are just ridiculous. I mean, just absolutely the most beautiful things that you've ever seen. So say the title again, because I'm going to add it to my wish list.
Bill E: "Larousse Gastronomique", and it's beyond the coffee table book because it's about eight inches thick. It's a monster, but it has colored pictures and has a story but it does more than just say, "Here's a recipe." It says, "Okay. You want to use this corn. This corn originated on this continent and here's how it grows. Here is where it grows well. Here is the things you can do with it." It takes an egg and gives you all the options. It's an encyclopedia with recipes and with the basic principles on how to utilize an ingredient to get the most out of it. I make pastrami as well, and I use coriander and coriander's great and I think anybody that loves Pastrami then realized they're smelling coriander but, coriander needs to be toasted before it really releases it's true flavor. I know that seems kind of like a silly little kind of deal but that was just a huge impact when I realize that there's tiny little step right here, takes this one great ingredient and just blows it out the charts.
Marcus: Yeah. Oftentimes with cooking though, that's the trick, right?
Bill E: Right.
Marcus: I mean it's not just getting some of the main steps correctly, it's paying attention to the small details that other people might overlook that sets a fantastic dish apart from something that's just edible, right?
Bill E: Correct.
Marcus: Right? What do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies? (laughter) It sounds so silly to ask after you've just given those passionate plea about bacon, but outside of bacon, any other hobbies that you like to do?
Bill E: Anything on the water, outdoors with my children and my lovely bride. We're both recently remarried. We've been married for a little over two years and she has two (children) and I have two and we all love to cook together, to dine together, and just spent as much time on the water as we can.
Marcus: Very good. Fishing?
Bill E: I like to eat the fish. The kids catch them and I try to eat them and then of course, my wife is always trying to tell us what to catch and that doesn't really work and it's kind of funny.
Marcus: If you can perfect that, then you...
Bill E: Any fish. I mean shrimp, flounder, blue crab...
Marcus: We're fortunate in this area that we have access to all these different types of--
Bill E: So blessed. So blessed.
Marcus: ...seafood and stuff like that. I mean I'm a seafood lover and moving to this area, it was like just fantastic.
Bill E: And they're all great wrapped in bacon!
Marcus: Yeah. Awesome. Give us a look at you in average day for you, what does that look like?
Bill E: I'm a numbers guy. I know that seems kind of crazy but I'm going to go in and I'm going to walk the restaurant and make my little list of things I want to see done and get done. I'm going to review yesterday's sales, compare them to last year, my labor, and look over invoices and make sure we're buying the right stuff, and then I want to try to forecast 90 days out and really see what's going on in the area and how we can capitalize off of it. Sometimes, it doesn't necessarily mean getting them to your restaurant that day, and I'll give you a prime example. In Fairhope, we have this wonderful event called “First Friday” and it has nothing to do with Old 27 because we are way away from downtown...
Marcus: You're several miles away from downtown.
Bill E: Yeah, and everything goes on downtown, but there are ton of people that are like that's more than I want to deal with so I want to go over here.
Marcus: Yeah, the opposite direction.
Bill E: So it really kind of... There's some backwards marketing to a lot of these things. Even if you when you all have big events over here in Mobile, we're going to catch something from it and the beach traffic to and from. We're that little secret road going down to the beach, kind of the back roads. We're exactly halfway in between Mobile and Gulf Shores. When you're at the beach and you're ready to leave, you want to get pretty far down the road...
Marcus: It's a convenient place to stop.
Bill E: ...before you to stop. Yeah.
Marcus: Yeah. I know that's awesome. So tell people where they can find you. I mean obviously, you've mentioned Old 27 Grill is on Highway 181 and what's the other road that you're kind of like add an intersection?
Bill E: Fairhope Avenue.
Marcus: Fairhope Avenue, okay.
Bill E: Straight shot down to the (Fairhope) Pier.
Marcus: Very good.
Bill E: I mean you can be downtown Fairhope and on the pier, if you catch all the lights right, in five minutes.
Marcus: And open seven days?
Bill E: Seven days a week, lunch and dinner. We do breakfast parties all the time for...that are pre-booked. We cater, any kind of catering you can think of...
Marcus: Music on the weekends?
Bill E: Good music - Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We do a songwriters' night every first and third Thursday which is a blast, then after it, we serenade the bacon and that's kind of fun. All the songwriters and the musicians get to walk away with a sticker they can put on their guitar case or amp that says 'I serenaded bacon at Old 27 Grill'.
Marcus: That's fun. That is really fun. And as far as the bacon goes, if there's a chef or restaurant owner listening to this and they want to contact you in regards to your bacon, how would they do that?
Marcus: Awesome. Well, I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments you like to share?
Bill E: So many people are claiming to be nowadays, but get out there and eat in restaurants. We all need you and the more, the merrier… meaning that, as a restaurant owner, I get excited when other restaurants open because it gets more energy and it gets people out there and go find some dishes that you love and try to order things that are off the beaten path a little bit, get aggressive and a little adventurous.
Marcus: That's cool. Bill E., I appreciate your willingness to seat with me and share your journey as an entrepreneur. It was great talking to you.
BillE. : You, too. Thank you for having me.
Marcus: This podcast is brought to you by Bill E.'s Bacon.