It’s a hard place to miss. Driving down Main Street in Searcy, Arkansas, there are few distinct buildings, most settling into the brown and gray of brick chain restaurants, local stores, and the occasional McDonalds or Sonic. However, when you pass a brightly-painted sun amidst wildflowers on a bright sky-blue background, you realize you’ve found something a little more unique.
As I walk into Wild Sweet Williams, the owners Bill and Lisa Ford greet me from behind the counter like I’m their oldest friend. Filled with that sweet southern hospitality, Lisa Ford ushers me into her shop, still cheery despite her typical 3:30 am alarm. “I was able to sleep in till 4 am this morning, which felt really nice,” she grins. The smell of freshly baked scones, muffins, and cinnamon rolls waft through the small space as Lisa, her husband Bill, and two of their employees set their wares onto vintage cake stands, wicker baskets, and tarnished silver plates in their pastry case prior to their open at 7 am.
Just before 7 am, a line starts to form outside, winding its way around the building’s mural. People look excited and exhausted all at once, just out of bed in sweatpants or on the way to work in slacks or scrubs. Once the shop is open, people wait in an increasingly long line to purchase their baked goods and be greeted by the Fords. And after only a couple hours, everything is sold out and they close.
After the early morning rush and subsequent empty case, Lisa Ford settles down to create the next day’s scones. Like a practiced sculptor, she easily works scones into small, perfect triangles while we talk.
Lisa Ford never intended to open a bakery—it was never a dream of hers—but more a process of evolution, she says. “I never intended to be a baker, but I never remember not baking.”
Before Wild Sweet Williams, Ford was a busy homeschool mother to five children, but baked for the farmer’s market and catered as a side job. “We decided to do the farmer’s market with our kids as a project. We had an incredible response from the community.” She realized this was a niche that would work in Searcy.
However, during their farmer’s market stint, Ford’s father received a grim cancer diagnosis. Ford went home to care for him. During that time, her father encouraged her to pursue her baking business.
As Lisa processes white chocolate for her white chocolate blueberry scones, she recalls her father’s insistence. “He was very adamant that we do a storefront. That’s when we branded; we did the name, did the bank accounts, and all of the business stuff. Inside, I had no intention. It was just a project for me and my dad to work on together and he loved it so much.”
Only 8 weeks after his diagnosis, Lisa’s dad passed. She says she wasn’t interested in continuing to pursue the business until a friend called with a space in Searcy. “I could just visualize it being here,” she said about the small and narrow space. “It’s really cool because I would have never opened up a storefront where he couldn’t sit. I would have wanted a table and a chair for him to come and bring his books, studies, writings.”
Lisa points to the photo of her dad on the wall. “I know he’s tickled that he gets to be a part of it, even without a table for him.”
Bill Ford mentions that the muralist included her dad’s face in the sun as well, to ensure that he would always be a part of the business.
Lisa continues her methodic creation of scones—probably up to 50 or more scones by this point—and brushes them generously with heavy cream. Lisa mentions that she has no strong ties to the scone, other than that she knew she could make a better one. “Most people say, ‘This isn’t like a British scone!’ But I like to say, this scone came to the south and we gave it a little southern hospitality. A little more cream and a little more sugar and it decided to stay.” Again, she grins her contagious smile.
Bill chimes in from beside Lisa, working together to create the pastries for the following morning. “It’s like chemistry for her. She has a crazy palate. She dissects the ingredients in her mouth. And she doesn’t let a lot of people help her with the scones because they screw it up. I can make them and they are real close, but it’s still different to when she makes it.”
Scones make up the majority of the offerings at Wild Sweet Williams, and most people stick to the scones, says Bill. “However, we’ve really seen Searcy change with regards to the scone,” he laughs. “Our blueberry scones sell out quickly. When we’re out of blueberry scones, we tell them to try a chocolate chip scone. Well, then we’re out of blueberry and chocolate chip, so they get a lavender white chocolate. Now we have a lot of people that come in and ask for something new.”
Lisa relates this to the kolaches, a traditional Czechoslovakian pastry—a fruit or cream cheese filled bread, similar to a Danish—that Lisa grew up eating and baking with her Czechoslovakian grandparents.
“I couldn’t even sell 12 kolaches when we first opened. People just came for scones. I was hurt!” Lisa brings her hands to her heart in a pleading motion. “Here I was, bearing my ancestral soul and I couldn’t sell 12 of them. Now people are buying fancy ones. It’s been fun to see people start to trust us and get out of the blueberry scone box.”
I asked them what it was like to work together as a married couple, and Lisa spoke up first. “It’s difficult. Finding balance. Thankfully our gifts and abilities complement each other, but we both have ridiculously strong personalities and opinions, so we’ve both had to learn how to …”
“Be okay with us both being wrong,” Bill finished. They both laughed together. “Going from spending 3 hours a day together to spending 18 hours a day together is an adjustment,” Lisa commented.
Bill continued, “I don’t mind working now. I’m working for my future and I get to work with my kids and my wife. I’d rather work with her in a bad mood than some other guy that I really don’t like at all. I love this.”
The Fords both recognize that the flavors they use—like lavender, rose, and other atypical southern flavors—and the way they run their business are inspired by their years living in Italy during Bill’s stint in the Air Force.
“Living in Italy really influenced us with the idea that there’s a limited amount of items that bakers can make each morning because they make their breads and pastries by hand. The baker makes bread and in order to buy bread, you stand in line before they open.” Lisa also related that she rarely made it in time to get fresh bread in the morning. “And that was on me!”
The Fords both enjoy making the pastries themselves and explained that it functions as their form of quality control. “We don’t put stuff out there that’s not homemade. And we work to live, not live to work.”
Though Wild Sweet William’s pastries are some of the best in Arkansas, the Fords also put effort into creating a happy and welcoming space to each person that swings open their door.
Bill continues to chop strawberries and mentions, “I like to think that people come in and leave changed. Even though it’s a short time, we try and love on people through what we do. We care about people. We’ve had people come in here and cry on several occasions and we comfort them.”
Lisa chimed in, pausing the kneading of her scones. “Life is hard. If we can, for five minutes, be a place where people can exhale and enjoy some beauty and sweetness, that’s what we want to do.”
If you are unable to make it to Wild Sweet Williams at 7 AM and don’t want to miss out on your favorites, Wild Sweet William’s does take online orders and phone orders for later pick-up. Visit their website wildsweetwilliams.com or call 501-593-5655.
Wild Sweet Williams
304B S. Main Searcy, Arkansas