If you live in Brighton or Lewes, there’s a good chance you’ll have visited Bill’s at some point.

Perhaps you’ve groaned with pleasure over one of their homely stews or nearly been moved to tears by the gorgeous, flower-strewn cakes. You’ll almost certainly have had to queue; since the first café opened in 2001 they’ve been picking up awards and devotees at a ferocious pace.

The first Bill’s cookbook is published this month, letting readers in on the secrets of a ten-year success story that centres on 48-year-old Bill Collison, a former fruit and vegetable grower turned suitedand- booted businessman.

Although he’s rarely in the limelight himself, Collison’s tastes can be spotted in every corner of his stores, from the coloured raffia bundles that hang from the ceiling to the retro pin-up girls that adorn the menus. He has a particular person who writes the blackboards – he won’t use anyone else – and a tendency to obsess over the exact colours and arrangement of garnishes. It’s clear he’s a born aesthete: “I let lettuces almost go to seed because they look so beautiful and I don’t want to cut them.”

He thinks it’s his innate appreciation for the theatre of food that has propelled him forward in a highly competitive industry – that and a shrewd business partner, his sister-in-law Tania Webb.

“I’ve always been one for not worrying if something makes money as long as it looks nice,” he says. “But it’s Tania who helped turn that into a business. I’d still be going to market at 3am if it wasn’t for her.”

The pair met when Collison started dating Tania’s sister Becca – a Saturday girl on his fruit and vegetable stall and now his wife of 16 years. Born into a travelling family, Collison left Lewes Priory School without sitting his O Levels to join his father working on the land. A somewhat disruptive pupil, he was asked to leave before exams started. Last year, the head asked him back to present an award.

“I wish they’d make their minds up!”

he grins.

His father gave him the Lewes High Street “shed” when he was 22, in an attempt to put his wayward son on track.

Collison junior quickly built up a loyal fan base for his groceries – Webb recalls him stocking ten types of mushroom, while in London she was struggling to find similar – but it was, at the end of the day, just a job.

It was Tania and his wife who turned it into a passion.

“They made me realise we had something special,” he says.

The first Bill’s café opened in 2001, rising phoenix-like on the site where the shed had stood until being destroyed in the floods that devastated the town in 2000.

Customers were invited to sit down amongst the fresh produce – something of a novelty at the time. Collison stopped selling imported fruit and veg and started buying local, seasonal stuff – again, long before it became a foodie mantra.

“It was an easier way of doing things and something I could do with belief,” he says.

They won some awards, including the Observer Food Monthly’s Best Newcomer award in 2006, and started making their own chutneys and jams. They put fruit on pizzas, added roots and sprouts to salads and sold puddings that people would photograph before they ate (and still do).

“We wanted Bill’s to be somewhere that really celebrated food and was welcoming to everyone,”

Collison writes in the book.

“We wanted new customers to stop in their tracks to take everything in as they came through the door, and regulars to feel like it was the next best thing to home.”

Ten years down the line, the original Lewes store has been joined by one in Brighton and another in London’s Covent Garden.

The fruit and veg side has all but disappeared.

Supermarkets picked up on the trend for local produce and have made a better job, Collison says – they can do it more cheaply, offer more choice, package it attractively.

Whatever people may claim, most don’t really want to scrub mud off misshapen potatoes. “If we’d stayed only a fresh produce store we wouldn’t be in business now. It’s the cafés that have carried it.”

He misses getting his hands dirty, but accepts change is inevitable.

Last year, Collison teamed up with millionaire businessman Richard Caring, whose portfolio includes London restaurants The Ivy, Le Caprice and J Sheekey. The millions Caring has put into Bill’s in the past 12 months means new stores are opening all over the country (Cambridge at the end of the month, with Oxford and Bristol looking set to follow).

Does he worry the brand will get diluted?

Although the new branches will remain under the control of the company’s directors, it’s surely hard to keep replicating something that has always felt quite unique.

“We take the best of what we do and do it the best we can,” he says with uncharacteristic woolliness.

“Things have to keep getting better and certainly, the businesses are busier than they’ve ever been.

We’ve got a great team and Richard Caring doesn’t have anything that’s not good.”

Besides, Collison had to take a step back. He was worried he wasn’t seeing enough of his three sons growing up. It’s been hard, he says, trusting someone else with your baby – it took him long enough to let his store managers get on with managing – but things have to evolve.

After years of long hours and no holidays, he now wants to enjoy reaping the rewards.

The family live just outside Lewes, on a farm rented from a friend.

Much of Collison’s childhood was spent outside and he wanted his children, George (16), Alf (13) and Bertie (7), to share his experience – all “rolling fields and brooks to play in”. Judging by the photographs in the book – this being a Bill’s production, the whole thing looks sumptuous – it’s an idyllic existence.

Putting out a book was an obvious step, Collison says.

“Our lives are lived around what we have for supper.”

He’s certainly got the stories and recipes to fill it, recounting them all to his friend and co-writer Sheridan McCoid, who was enlisted to make him sound “less like a gypsy”.

Food is a big deal to the family. His oldest son, he says, is entrepreneurial with it, always making smoothies or coffees to sell at the side of the road. His middle son sold jam at his grandad’s farm gate the other week.

Does he hope they will take over the business one day?

He laughs. “I want them to get nine-to-five jobs with three weeks’ holiday a year!”

Despite all he has achieved, Collison would usually prefer to be putting his feet up than working – he insists he’s naturally lazy. But something changed when he founded Bill’s. “I became a martyr to the cause with Bill’s. I started thinking if I was going to do it, I had to be the best. I’ve been trying to achieve that ever since.”

l Bill’s The Cookbook: Cook Eat Smile by Bill Collison and Sheridan McCoid is out now, published by Saltyard Books, priced £25.

l Bill Collison will be speaking at The Old Market, Upper Market Street, Hove on Tuesday. For tickets, call City Books on 01273 725306