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 and native of Annapolis, is the chief executive officer of Gill Grilling, a catering service he started while a student. The company caters about two meals a day for five fraternities at the University of Maryland.
He is one of a handful of 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 student 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 cleaning up from 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 up, cooked and served.
As he makes the rice pilaf, his cell phone rings. Someone is calling about the newspaper ad he placed seeking a cook. The job is already filled, he tells the caller.
Gill's business started somewhat by accident when he was living at the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity house in the summer of 2002. A few weeks earlier, the fraternity had moved from an off-campus house into a large columned house along Route 1. As an officer in the fraternity, Gill was responsible for finding boarders -- students not in the fraternity -- to live in the house for the coming school year, filling extra space in the house. He remembers a student telling him he was prepared to move in but wondered how he would eat. At the time, there was no caterer in the house and students ate out.
"I'll cook for you," Gill told the prospective boarder. Gill devised a contract stating services he would provide, at what cost, 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 and drew up contracts for them as well. After graduation, Gill was planning to go to graduate school and figured he would cook just to earn spending money. Then a friend of Gill's in another fraternity complained that the catering service his fraternity was using was terrible. The friend asked Gill whether he would come cook for his house.
So, as Gill was preparing to graduate in May 2003, he was also cooking meals about five days a week for 33 guys. At the time, Gill Grilling consisted of Gill and two employees who used the fraternities' kitchens to prepare food. Soon, Gill Grilling was getting requests to cater for more houses.
For the semester last fall, Gill Grilling had contracts to cater at four fraternity houses and one sorority house. Each house was paying the company from $30,000 to $35,000 per semester.
"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," said Gill, who used to work part time at the Annapolis Yacht Club.
Gill's own experience as a fraternity house resident helped him figure out how to make his company a good fit for the university, he said. It means doing things such as adjusting his catering service to accommodate the fraternities' schedules.
"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 their own businesses.
The business and entrepreneurship classes Gill took helped him learn how to secure investors, but it was his experience as a fraternity leader that helped launch his business career. He said it cost him about $50,000, $15,000 of which was his own money. 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.
Like Gill's business, Bookholders.com was born out of need. In late 1999, John Verde, then a student at the University of Maryland, was growing tired of spending hundreds of dollars on textbooks and getting only a fraction 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.
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 remaining 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 desired.
Students also have the option to take their books back before they are sold. For students who want cash immediately, Bookholders will buy books at prices similar to those of the other bookstores, Verde said.
At the other local bookstores, students receive money when they sell their books to the bookstore and are not allowed to wait for the resale. 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.
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 for the community's two traditional bookstores: the on-campus University Book Center and the off-campus Maryland Book Exchange.Bookholders is now on College Avenue, directly across from the Maryland Book Exchange.
"The College Park area is a good place to start because I know the market already," said Verde who earned an engineering degree from Maryland. "You can't pick a better customer than yourself."
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.
"Bookholders was just sort of an idea that I had. I wanted to see where it would go," Verde said. "I'm planning on going to graduate school. This is out of my field; I'm really a chemical and electrical engineer."