Billy’s Bakery Expands


             Like the dough for the breads, success is rising for Bill Hollis, the owner/operator of Billy’s bakery, which recently moved to larger quarters at 1885 Black Rock Turnpike.            The new 3,500-square-foot space at the corner of Katona Drive, provides Bill and Beth Hollis and staff, opportunity to expand the bakery’s product line while giving customers an open window onto the skills and craftsmanship of these artisan bakers as they bake in an open area which houses four ovens  - two for breads, one for pastries and one for bagels. Bagels? Yes, bagels – the New York kind that Hollis first boils then bakes in a stone hearth oven.

“People love the bagels,” Hollis said. “They are soaring out of here.”

And so are the exquisite baked goods: pastries, tarts, breads, dinner and hamburger rolls, sheet cakes, carrot cakes, cheesecakes, muffins, brownies, cookies and cinnamon buns. Let’s not forget the pie plate-shaped layer of brownies topped with a layer of chocolate chip cookie. Soon the bakery will be selling an expanded line of cakes and cupcakes.

            What customers have come to understand about Hollis is that he is truly a man who loves baking. This is a man whose priority is baking products with the best ingredients. This is a man who gave up a lucrative position as vice president of operations for his father-in-law, Stew Leonard, Sr., to open his own bakery, and he couldn’t be happier. Neither can his wife Beth Leonard Hollis, who runs the Stew Leonard’s mail order business while offering support services, including marketing, for the couple’s family bakery.

She started Bethy’s Bakery in the Stew Leonard’s flagship store in Norwalk in 1984 after she had taken lessons in baking in a bakery north of Paris, France, where she had spend her junior year from Skidmore and subsequently did graduate work studying French and literature in France.

            Beth Hollis immersed herself in the French culture and the art of baking. She returned to this country with thoughts to take a job with a French baking company in Washington, D.C. Then she suggested to her father that maybe his store should sell croissants. He was glad his daughter way rethinking her career path and was considering joining the family business.

            Stew, Sr. said, “That’s great, but what’s a croissant?

            Thanks to the Hollis family, Stew, Sr. and the rest of the Leonard family is well family with croissants and the breads that Hollis has made his signature product for Billy’s Bakery.

            Praise for Hollis’s accomplishments as a bakery come from the highest echelon in French baking.. Didier Rosada, one of the best bread bakers in the world, who coaches expert bakers like Hollis, spent time recently with Hollis coaching him in the baking of new breads, especially whole grain breads that consumers are seeking, and Hollis can now offer with his new ovens.

            Rosada said Hollis has the one ingredient vital for a successful bakery and that is  his “passion” for the work he does. Hollis’ passion is obvious as he offered a visitor a tour of the facility that was bustling with staff helping customers while bakers worked in open view behind the showcase that held a variety of cheeses and prepared sandwiches that Billy’s Bakery is now offering.

            Discussing the additions to his product line with the added space, Hollis noted that his customers have been requesting cheese, since a popular cheese shop on Black Rock Turnpike had closed. He also realized that his prepared gourmet sandwiches, made on the premises by staffer Justin Edo, fill a need at the bakery’s new location. One tempting sandwich consisted of prosciutto with goat cheese, cilantro on a wholewheat baguette.

            In addition, the bakery set up a coffee bar with a variety of dark, Colombian and other gourmet flavors that rotate on a weekly basis. Other new features include the flower corner filled with buckets of flowers; shelves stocked with specialty pastas and imported olive oils, plus fig jams and honey to complement the breads.

            As he offered his tour, Hollis noted the new product line that he has added just within the one month of his relocation. The showcase of baked goods include his first-time offering of three different kinds of cheesecake; white chocolate, mocha and a plain cheesecake. Another addition is his carrot cake with cream cheese icing and his chocolate sheet cakes.

            “He’s the product guy,” said Beth Hollis, noting her husband’s specialty skills. She cited his expertise in baking the new grain breads that he is able to offer his customers.

            The couple, who have been married 20 years and have three children, Sarah, 18, Will, 16 and Andrew, 14, basically grew their romance from their ability to break bread together. They met on a blind date arranged by mutual friends. Their meeting blossomed into love and marriage and Hollis taking a position with his brother-in-law Tom Leonard running Stew Leonard’s in Danbury that had opened soon after he and Beth married.

            Then when Beth went on maternity leave with their first child, Hollis stepped in to run Beth’s Bakery. He was hooked. While the food industry was not new to Hollis – he had run three gourmet popcorn franchises that his father bought in Fairfield County and worked for a General Foods coffee plant in Jacksonville, FL – he fell in love with the art of baking bread. And it is indeed an art. Early on in the Beth’s Bakery at Stew Leonard’s Hollis began offering new breads, such as a crusty bread, a natural bread and sour dough bread.

            Billy’s Bakery offers a variety of breads made from a natural firmentation, not yeast. His sour dough bread is made from a Levain which must be fed with flour and water on regular intervals to retain its core base. The bakery stores different starters for different breads.

            While Hollis has a store manager and pastry chef, Claire McCarthy, and a head chef Sam Josewitz, he is a very “hands-on” owner. He makes sure he can step in and perform every responsibility. In addition, he concentrates on training his staff, which includes 25 full- and part-time employees, and creating new products.  He praised his staff and noted that his 15 full-timers have been with him since the inception of Billy’s Bakery five years ago.

            He praised his wife’s support to the business and noted that they both enjoy traveling together to get different ideas for their bakery. She, in turn, praised her husband’s entrepreneurial skills and his passion for the bakery. “He has an educated palate…He’s a classic entrepreneur. He loves to get all involved in something, his wife said.

            For her personally, having the family bakery, with her husband and three children, is very nostalgic for Beth, who grew up with her three siblings, Stew, Jr., Tom, and Jill, as their father, with his marketing genius, grew Stew Leonard’s, a company that began as a dairy by her grandfather and expanded into becoming a very competitive supermarket that garnered international attention in the industry.            Watching her own family business grow is a reminder to Beth of her own father’s success. As with her father, Stew, Sr. she enjoys talking with customers, finding out what they want and watching the sales grow. Bill Hollis follows a similar pattern.

            He was most accommodating when local resident Debbie Sheldon, who had just bought a fresh fruit tart came up to him and offered suggestions for expanding his product line. In addition, she complimented Hollis’s new array of cheeses. Sheldon, who has lived in town for the past 25 years, said she was excited about the new expanded bakery.

            “It a wonderful addition to what is offered on Black Rock Turnpike,” said Sheldon, holding the boxed tart and a shopping bag of cheeses and dinner rolls.

            Hollis feels very grateful to the community for embracing his bakery the past five years and for giving him the opportunity for expansion. “What kept me going was that literally people would come in to thank me. It touches people in a different way.” Analyzing the public’s response, he believes his success has something to do with the bread, itself, that seems to strike a nostalgic chord with people who remember growing up and going into their local mom and pop bakery to buy bread.

            “The old and young are touched by this bakery, and it makes me feel good.”

            Hours are Mon.-Sat., 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sun., 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.  


© Copyright 2006 Rita Papazian All rights reserved.