Bill Tracy, Bill’s Pizza and Bill’s Grill founder, dies of complications from fall
Bill Tracy, eccentric founder of the ever-popular Bill’s Pizza and Bill’s Grill in downtown Prescott, died Sept. 5 of complications from injuries he suffered after falling off the roof of his Palm Desert, California, restaurant in mid-July. He was 69.
Tracy established his first Bill’s Pizza location in Prescott at 107 S. Cortez St. in the mid-2000s. The restaurant quickly gained traction because of his pizza’s flavorful ingredients and its unique sourdough crust made from Italian pizza flour that’s baked in gas-fired brick ovens.
Longtime friend Karen Churchill said Bill’s Pizza caught on because it’s “nourishing, good and reasonably priced.”
The thin, 6-foot-4 Tracy, who had a degree in accounting and worked as a mailman, an accountant and a chef on a Russian shipping vessel at one point, “loved to experience things,” Churchill said.
Tracy spent years perfecting his recipe, traveling around the United States and Italy researching pizza styles and techniques. He even attended a pizza-making seminar with Chris Bianco, winner of the 2003 James Bear Award for Best Chef in the Southwest.
“When I was a baker for him, he was a perfectionist,” she added. “He was very, very particular.”
Twenty-five specialty pizzas, which had Tracy’s signature all over them, remain on the menu at Bill’s Pizza in Prescott. New owner Taylor Smythe, 34, a California transplant whose father, Stephen, was a lifelong friend of Bill’s, said he knew Bill his whole life.
Taylor, who had been a mortgage loan officer in California, bought the Prescott restaurant on Sept. 1, 2015, and he and his wife, Charlotte, operate the business together. Taylor had dropped everything to move to Arizona.
For six months in Palm Springs, California, Bill taught Taylor “what makes Bill’s Pizza special,” including “treating all customers as guests in your own home,” Taylor said.
“He and my dad [Stephen] were best buddies,” added Taylor, who described Bill as “very welcoming and personable.” “He wanted to keep this [Prescott’s Bill’s Pizza] in the family. He knew how much it meant to the community.”
Over the past several years, Bill’s Pizza has supported Prescott-area nonprofits, regularly donating pizzas to more than 20 different organizations, from the Girl Scouts, to Big Brothers Big Sisters, to Prescott High wrestling.
On the restaurant’s walls, local artists’ paintings and photographs are displayed for sale. Art rotates every three months.
“He was a great friend to the community,” West Yavapai Guidance Clinic development manager Cindy Brown said. “He will be greatly missed.”
In addition, Bill’s Pizza provides food every day for the homeless and those in sober-living homes in the area, as well as space for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at 7 a.m. daily, 8 p.m. Sundays, and 9 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Churchill said Tracy enjoyed making a difference in people’s lives, whether it involved hiring someone who had trouble finding a job, lending someone money who was in dire need or supporting someone in their sobriety.
“I saw him do it over and over with other people,” she said, adding that Tracy also lent a helping hand to her. “He had a rare, incredible generosity. He wanted his community to be a better place.”
Churchill met Tracy 20 years ago when she worked at Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott. She and Tracy took cooking classes together at Yavapai College under executive chef Molly Beverly.
“We had a lot in common,” she said.
Churchill added that Tracy was driven to succeed. Before he established Bill’s Pizza, Tracy owned the Dinner Bell Café in downtown Prescott from 1999-2004.
“He bought it and turned it around,” she said of the cafe. “For him, feeding people was just an outreach of love.”
He later learned Mexican cooking in Oaxaca, completed cooking classes in Thailand, and developed an interest in Filipino cuisine.
“Before Bill settled here, he traveled all over the U.S. to put his culinary degree to work,” Taylor said. “He fell in love with Prescott.”
Eleven years ago this weekend, Tracy met his wife, Elma, a Filipina. They were married in Prescott, but Tracy later sold Bill’s Pizza and Bill’s Grill and moved to Palm Springs, because Elma wanted to live in a warmer climate.
Tracy would still visit Prescott, though, including the Bill’s Pizza here.
“He was kind of a silly character — he loved to make people laugh,” Taylor said.
In April 2010, Tracy opened a Bill’s Pizza location in Palm Springs, where Bill’s brother lives. Bill and Elma were enjoying their lives and raising a young daughter before the unthinkable happened.
On a hot day in mid-July, Tracy and Tim Kispert, manager of the Bill’s Pizza in Palm Desert, were insulating the duct work for the air conditioning unit on the roof there.
Tracy apparently became disoriented and accidentally walked off the roof, breaking several bones, including his pelvis, wrist and shoulder, after a lengthy fall. Doctors at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs treated him.
However, Tracy, a man who had hiked the Grand Canyon from rim to rim in a day in his 60s, wouldn’t be the same again.
Tracy developed a lung infection, which had initially gone away but recently returned. Doctors placed Tracy in a medically-induced coma for more than five weeks at the University of Southern California’s Keck Hospital in Los Angeles in hopes that his lungs would heal. His lungs seemed to be improving, but on Aug. 30 the infection returned and he went on a ventilator.
With Bill’s chance of survival slim, Elma and Tracy’s brother, Jim, gave doctors permission to take Bill off of life support on Sept. 5. In death, Bill continued giving the gift of life as an organ donor.
Back in Prescott, Taylor, Charlotte and their family are building a new life — thanks largely to Bill. Tributes to Bill have been pouring in at the Bill’s Pizza here. Taylor’s planning a “Wall of Bill,” a collage of photos on one of the walls in the restaurant.
“This has put us in a position to live in this beautiful place,” Taylor said of the restaurant in Prescott. “I see running this for 30 years or more.”
Doug Cook is a reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @dougout_dc. Email him at email@example.com or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2039.