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.
Soon, he asked other members of the fraternity whether they would be interested in a similar arrangement, drawing up contracts for them as well. After graduation, Gill was planning to go to graduate school and figured he would just cook to "get some beer money to go to the bars with."
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."
In addition to the Dingman Center, Maryland also runs a program called Hinman Campus Entrepreneurship Opportunities, which houses students together in a high-tech "e-dorm" and gives them resources to start businesses. The program was created in 2000 through a $2.5 million gift from alumnus and entrepreneur Brian Hinman, who founded several teleconferencing companies. The program brings together about 90 students from different majors to take seminars and classes led by venture capitalists and successful businesspeople and provides them with industry mentors. It's a joint venture between the business school and the A. James Clark School of Engineering.
Like many other successful businesses, Bookholders.com was born out of frustration. In late 1999, John Verde, a student at Maryland, was growing tired of shelling out hundreds of dollars for textbooks, only to get a fraction of that back when he resold them.
"Most of the local bookstores would give me almost nothing for the books," said Verde, 25, the chief executive of Bookholders.com. "It was better to keep the books than to sell them, so I thought, 'Why was it like this?' "
The campus bookstores calculate the price students are paid for books by determining whether the books will be used the next semester, whether there is a new edition available and how many they have in stock, Verde said. His idea was to essentially cut out the middleman and create a sort of virtual consignment shop for textbooks. Digital photos of many of the books are taken and placed on the store's Web site for students to view.
Bookholders uses a system called "the Advantage" to buy and sell used textbooks. When a student brings in a book at the end of each semester, it is given a bar code number, evaluated for quality, priced and listed on the store's Web site. If and when the book sells, the student is given a check for 85 percent of the selling price and the store takes the other 15 percent as a commission. The store calculates the selling price for each book, but the student can go online and adjust the price if he likes.
Students also have the option to take their books back before they are sold. For students who want cash right away, Bookholders will buy books at prices similar to other bookstores, Verde said.
At the other local bookstores, students receive money when they sell their books to the bookstore and aren't allowed to wait for the resale. And, unlike with Bookholders, students have no influence over the resale price of their own books.
"It works out really well for students," said Verde, who lives in Gambrills. "Usually, most students say one book they sell on advantage encompasses all the money they would have gotten" at the other bookstores.
Since Verde started the business in January 2000 with $30,000 and a rented 300-square-foot location hidden behind the Wawa convenience store in the College Park Shopping Center, Bookholders has become a major competitor of the community's two traditional bookstores: the on-campus University Book Center and the off-campus Maryland Book Exchange.
The scene in the store's new location on College Avenue, directly across from the Maryland Book Exchange, tells the story of a successful business. The front of the store where customers drop off and pick up books is relatively barren. It consists of a long, wraparound wood counter where employees use about four computers to conduct business. Just opposite the counters are several other computer terminals where customers can browse the store's inventory. But what the customers don't see is the backbone of the operation: its inventory of books.
To get to Bookholders' inventory, you have to walk out the back exit of the store, across a parking area and into a basement warehouse. In addition to being attracted to the site because of its potential as a prime retail sales spot, Verde saw other advantages: The store at 4509-A College Ave. came with about 6,000 square feet of storage space. The basement runs underneath several Route 1 businesses, including a bagel shop and a salon, and all the books are kept there. Near the entrance to the basement is a small office space equipped with several computers, where employees receive orders for books and label and inventory the books that come in. The majority of the space is filled with wood bookshelves built by employees that house the store's growing inventory. Verde said that at the beginning of each semester, the store usually has about 60,000 books, half of which are sold throughout the semester.
Since starting Bookholders, Verde has made adjustments to the business to make using it easier for students. Acknowledging that "college students don't like to wait in line," Verde introduced an express pickup line, where students who ordered books online don't have to wait long to pick them up.
"The College Park area is a good place to start because I know the market already," Verde said. "You can't pick a better customer than yourself."
Although Verde received two engineering degrees from the University of Maryland in May 2001, he said the skills he learned have helped him set up and run Bookholders. The computer technology that the store uses was built by Verde through a Web design and hosting company he owns called ExtremeWeb. He said the math theory he learned during college helps him track and predict sales trends to help set his prices.
Growing up in Taiwan, Jenny Liu had her pick of several stands and cafes that served a popular drink called bubble tea -- a cold tea with milk and round balls of tapioca that drinkers suck up through a giant straw. When she was a student at the University of Maryland in the mid-1990s, she longed for a similar place where she and her friends could sit for hours talking and drinking the bubble tea that was so popular in her homeland.
"I would go to Starbucks, but I would kind of hesitate to bring playing cards in there," said Liu, 32.
In March 2001, more than six years after she graduated from Maryland in December 1994, Liu was able to bring that taste of home to College Park by opening Ten Ren's Tea Time on Route 1. Although she longed for the drink while she was a student, it hadn't been Liu's plan to open a business in College Park. But serendipity led her back to her college town.
She was working as an accountant in 1997 when she was assigned to the account of Alfred Liu, the owner of a bubble tea store in Rockville. Alfred Liu had been working at bubble tea stores in New York and came to Rockville that year to open a store that would attract the area's growing Asian population.
Soon after taking on the account, the two were married, and Jenny Liu quit her job to became a co-owner of the Rockville store. After it had been doing well for about three years, Liu and her husband wanted to open another store in the area. They looked into locations in the District and Virginia but found the rent too high.
"A lot of our customers were coming from Columbia and Baltimore, and I thought it might be a good idea to open one in College Park," Liu said. "Since I graduated from Maryland, I thought it might be a good idea to have a place where students can hang out with friends."
When Liu and her husband were planning to open a Ten Ren store in College Park, Liu knew it had to be different from the Rockville store to cater to the college crowd. So Liu drew on her experience as a student and enlisted the help of her two sisters, who also graduated from Maryland.
At the College Park store, handmade wood tables surrounded by small stools sit on a tiled floor. Pictures of Asian foods and traditional paintings hang on the walls. But the atmosphere Liu is aiming for is one that attracts both Asian and non-Asian students. So she has stacks of InStyle magazines, American newspapers and board games alongside Chinese publications. She also plays a wide mix of music, ranging from Taiwanese pop to country. In contrast to the Rockville store, the College Park location boasts a full menu of Asian dishes such as sweet-and-sour chicken and spring rolls to accompany the more than 50 kinds of teas. Both of the stores are franchises of Ten Ren Tea, a company based in Taiwan that has about 40 stores in the United States as well as locations in Canada and Japan, Liu said.
"This one is a totally different experience," Liu said recently as she sat in the College Park store. She splits her time between it and the Rockville location. "It's always nice to have a place to hang out after or between classes."
While an undergraduate, Liu studied accounting, which she said has been useful in her business ventures: She does the accounting for the stores rather than having to hire someone.
"What I learned in school helped me understand the business process," Liu said. "What you learned from school is a base, and what you learn on job is more practical."
The Future Looks Bright
College Park government officials say these student entrepreneurs bring a connection to the community that is valuable to other businesses and to the community itself.
Besides knowing their customers well, these owners might also have a stronger desire to see businesses around their alma mater prosper.
"Local ownership provides for a more active role in the city in terms of interest and working within the community," said Claire Sale, the city's economic development coordinator.
Moreover, College Park may be only the first stop for most of the budding entrepreneurs.
All said they are contemplating expansion to other areas.
In addition to catering for the Maryland fraternities, Gill Grilling also caters private parties and other occasions. The company has gained some local notice after Gill Grilling began serving breakfast once a week for the popular WHFS-FM (99.1) radio morning show "The Sports Junkies."
"We can afford to expand as quickly as possible," Gill said.
Verde said he has always viewed Bookholders as a "pilot store" and has made inquires into other markets. He said the model will work anywhere, as evidenced by the fact that students from local community colleges and even other universities, including Virginia Tech, have used the College Park store. Verde said that although the store is approaching the goals he set, he is tweaking and revamping the business blueprint.
He recently changed the computer system the company uses and is looking into other ideas, such as utilizing direct deposit to pay students when their books sell.
"Bookholders was just sort of an idea that I had," Verde said. "I wanted to see where it would go."