William “Billy” Thompson, the founder of Billy’s Sub Shop, passed away on Saturday, Oct. 27 at his home in Florida.
The impact that Billy made on Ocean City, beginning in the mid-20th century, is subtle but strong; Everyone who knew Billy has a story about him, or can at least remember the stories that Billy himself would tell. Billy’s own story in Ocean City starts in 1959. Even when he retired in 2002 his story continued, and even now after his passing, Billy’s legacy lives on.
In 1959, hoagies make their debut in Ocean City
Billy’s sub shops have lined the streets of Ocean City for the past six+ decades, from a handful of now-defunct locations on 28th Street, in the Oyster Bay Shopping Center and in the 94th Street mall, to the two restaurants that are still in operation on 139th Street and on Route 54 in Fenwick Island, DE. But where Billy’s originated, off the Boardwalk on Wicomico Street, today serves as the corporate office for Dolle’s Candyland. It’s thanks to the founder of Dolles, in fact, that Billy was able to open up his first shop and bring classic Italian hoagies to Ocean City in the first place.
In the late 1950s, Billy was working in Delaware Park and would frequently make stops in Westchester, PA to pick up a few Philadelphian hoagies. He’d bring them back to work and introduce the subs to his co-workers, who had never before experienced the taste of an Italian coldcut sub.
“His wife at the time, she was the granddaughter of the founder of Dolle’s,” recalled William “Biff” Neely, the current owner of Billy’s. “He brought this thing to the grandfather and said look, these people here are buying them left and right, I think I can make a business selling these.”
In 1959, Billy’s grandfather-in-law let him build a sub shop out of a storage shed behind Dolle’s, and the rest is history.
“He was a father figure to everybody.”
Billy was a businessman at heart, and he was always thinking up ways to make a buck. In fact, after the nor’easter that famously hit Ocean City in 1962, he switched to gas appliances to ensure he’d be able to stay in business even after a natural disaster; immediately after the storm, when everyone else in town was surveying the damage, Billy was sweeping the sand off his equipment and selling hotdogs and hamburgers on the boardwalk.
More than that, though, Billy’s employees and former employees remember him as a father figure. He had three children of his own, but he also had a family at his restaurant.
“I had come down here and my father had died two years before, so he knew that and we latched to each other as a father figure, son figure,” Biff said. “I had a lady that was my manager at the time, she had lost her father. There was four or five of us that worked here for years and he was just like a father to us.”
Biff was hired in 1986, even though that May when he arrived in Ocean City seeking employment, Billy wasn’t hiring. But Biff realized that Billy was a betting man when he overheard him and two of his managers betting $100 to whichever one of them could lose 10 lbs first. Biff then bet Billy, “If I can go out and make a pizza in under a minute, you’ll hire me on the spot.”
Billy and his managers laughed and said it couldn’t be done, but they took him up on the bet anyway.
“At the time the minimum wage was about $2.65 an hour and I said, if you hire me, I want $3.50,” remembered Biff. He made his pizza in under a minute and began his career at Billy’s, starting salary $3.50 an hour.
Anne Neely, another former employee of Billy’s, remembered that she’d been hired because she wrote on her resume that she’d been skydiving before.
“The town grew around him.”
The North Ocean City Billy’s was once called “Billy’s on the Beach” because it was literally right on the beach. That was back when 140th Street was considered Fenwick Island, and Ocean City didn’t stretch much past 17th Street, aside from the Carousel and a few scattered beach cottages.
Billy ran a few beach stands in his spare time, and would have beachgoers ask him to make them a pizza or a burger. He’d run back into the shop, cook their food, and run it back onto the beach.
Biff remembered one story (of many) from Billy, from a time when the side of the street across from Billy’s oceanfront restaurant was nothing but woods.
“One night he was bored, he’s open, the old sub shop has serving windows in the front,” Biff said. “So he got his gun, he’d just cleaned his gun and he wanted to make sure it was okay, so he pointed across the street and started shooting into the woods. There’s nothing around here. Half hour later, the police come up and say, “Billy, someone reported gunshots,” and he says, “I’ve been here all night, I haven’t heard anything.” And the police was just like “oh okay, have a good night.” That was probably early 70s.”
Everyone who knew Billy seemed to have a story about him. Some even shared their memories and their condolences on Billy’s Sub Shop’s Facebook page.
“Oh no!! So sad to hear this!! Such a funny man— back in 1986 I was training at the sub shop and he said—. “First I will show you how to put ice in a cup!”. I guess I looked dumb. RIP Billy!!”
“I met Billy in 1970( I was 12) and he took me under his wing, gave me my first job and even had me run a beach-stand for him. For ten summers he was a part of my family’s life… Both of my sisters worked at Billy’s He was a great man who taught me many things and I’ll miss him. My sincerest sympathies to his family.”
“Wow. RIP Billy. Knew him in the 70’s. Great man, would give us a free sub if we were short. God bless =Prayers to the family.”
“I’m so sorry, he is the reason why I absolutely love provolone cheese. I have a lot of memories at the sub shop”
Billy will be remembered for his generosity, his ability to fill a room with his stories, and his subs, still being made today, that he first brought to Ocean City in 1959. He will be laid to rest in Baltimore on Tuesday, Nov. 6.