U-Md. Grads Giving the Old College a Try

The Washington Post ~ July 8, 2004

By Ethan Horowitz

Brian Gill stands in the kitchen of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house on a Tuesday afternoon in College Park, chopping onions. Clad in a black University of Maryland hat and blue polo shirt, Gill, 22, looks like one of the fraternity’s members fixing himself a snack between classes.

But he’s not just making something for himself. He’s cooking up a dish of rice pilaf for about 30 people for dinner.

Gill, a 2003 Maryland graduate, is the chief executive officer of Gill Grilling, a catering service he started while still a student. Last semester, the company catered about two meals a day for five fraternities at the University of Maryland.

Gill is one of a handful of recent alumni who own and operate businesses in the College Park area. Many of the young entrepreneurs, several of whom started their businesses while still students, credit their undergrad days in College Park with helping them find their market niche. They looked for what was missing in College Park and then found a way to fill the gap.

On this particular day, Gill is also cleaning up after lunch, which consisted of cheese steaks, Italian sausages and cold cuts. The company prepares some of its food at its Lanham office on Forbes Boulevard and takes it to College Park, where it is heated and served.

As he continues to make the rice pilaf, his cell phone rings. Because Gill is frequently away from the office, he conducts a lot of business via cell phone. This time, someone’s calling about the newspaper ad he placed seeking a cook. Unfortunately for the caller, Gill filled the job within days of placing the ad.

Gill’s business started somewhat by accident when he was living at the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity house in summer 2002. A few weeks earlier, the fraternity had moved from an off-campus site into a large columned house along Route 1 on the university’s Fraternity Row. As the treasurer and acting president of the fraternity, it was Gill’s responsibility to find boarders — students not affiliated with the fraternity–to live in the house for the upcoming school year because the fraternity couldn’t fill the house at that point. He remembers one student telling him he was prepared to move in but wondered where he would get his meals. At the time, there was no caterer in the house, and students ate on their own or at nearby restaurants, Gill said.

“I’ll cook for you,” Gill told the prospective boarder. Gill, an Annapolis native, drew up a contract spelling out services he would provide and how much he would be paid and had the boarder’s father sign it.

Then a friend of Gill’s in the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity complained that the catering service his fraternity was using was terrible and asked Gill whether he would come cook for the entire house.

So, as Gill was finishing up his studies in order to graduate in May 2003, he was also cooking lunch and dinner about five days a week for 33 guys. At that point, Gill Grilling consisted of Gill and two employees who would use the fraternities’ kitchens to prepare and cook the food. Some of Gill’s customers were telling friends in other fraternities about the food, and soon Gill Grilling was getting requests to cater for more houses.

For the fall 2003 semester, Gill Grilling had full-time contracts to cater at four fraternity houses and one sorority house. Each house paid the company between $30,000 and $35,000 to cater for the semester, Gill said.

During the fall 2003 semester, “all of us were fully convinced that we could do this full time and make it,” Gill said. “In March 2003, I made the conscious decision not to look for a job, not to go to graduate school and to pursue the business full time.”

Gill’s own experience as a former fraternity house resident helped him figure out how to make his company a good fit for the university, he said. That means doing things such as adjusting his catering service to accommodate the fraternities’ schedules. Gill knew that Monday nights are when each house has it chapter meetings, which usually draw larger crowds. So, on Mondays, Gill has his employees cook something that is easy to serve to a large group of people, such as pasta. Gill Grilling also offers each fraternity two dinners per semester at which they can invite a sorority over to eat at no extra charge.

“The needs of the Greek community are unique,” Gill said. “Our guiding principle is that we want to give back to the community that forged my person when I was in college.”

For enterprising students such as Gill, the university offers a number of academic programs to help students start businesses. Rudy Lamone was the dean of the Robert H. Smith School of Business for 19 years and founded the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship in 1986. (The Smith School has a number of notable alumni, including Under Armour sports apparel company founder Kevin Plank and Hewlett- Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina.) Lamone has also served as a mentor to Gill since Gill was in high school.

“Entrepreneurship is all about people who find opportunity other people couldn’t see, generally through some pain,” Lamone said.

Gill was working part time at the Annapolis Yacht Club, where Lamone was a member, and told him of his interest in attending Maryland and starting his own restaurant or catering service. The mentoring continued after Gill enrolled in the business school as a freshman.

“Anytime something happens, I’ll give him a call,” Gill said of his relationship with Lamone. “Even if it becomes a $50 million business, there would still be a way he could help us.”

Although the business and entrepreneurship classes Gill took certainly helped him learn how to secure investors, he said his experience as a fraternity leader has been key to learning how to run a business.

Gill said his business’s start-up costs were about $50,000, $15,000 of which was his own money, from jobs and a family inheritance. The rest came from bank loans.

“I couldn’t be here if I didn’t have the positions I did in the fraternity,” Gill said. “If you have a position of leadership, you are in charge of a business, because there is a lot of money flowing in out and of fraternities.”