William N. Gill Sr., founder of the Village Sub Shop chain that had numerous sites in the city and Baltimore County and later included the Steak & Rib Restaurant, died Saturday of a heart attack at his Lutherville home. He was 82.
William Norton Gill Sr., who was born and raised in the former 10th Ward in Baltimore, graduated in 1950 from Mount St. Joseph High School in Irvington.
He later worked for the old State Roads Commission and was a frozen food salesman. While sitting in a shopping center one day, Mr. Gill realized it would be the perfect location for a pizza shop.
So he borrowed his wife's savings of $700 and opened his first Village Sub Shop in a former garage in the 5200 block of Belair Road in Gardenville in 1957.
"It could have been anything at that point," Mr. Gill told The Evening Sun in a 1978 interview. "But I figured it could go as a sub shop."
"He saw the store as a business opportunity for him. And when he started, he didn't know how to make subs or pizza but said he'd learn," said his son, William N. Gill Jr., who later joined his father in the business.
"At the time he got into the business, you didn't have the big chains. His goal was to open a locally owned chain of sub and pizza shops and become the largest in the Baltimore area," said the younger Mr. Gill, who lives in Fallston.
From the beginning, Mr. Gill focused on blue-collar customers, his kind of people, he said in the 1978 interview.
In the late 1950s, Mr. Gill was charging 50 cents for half a cheeseburger sub while the whole sandwich could be had for 95 cents. A traditional cold-cut sub sold for 65 cents, while on the high end, a shrimp salad sub was $1.05.
In the 1960s, a basic tomato and cheese pizza sold for $1.50, while the house specialty, a "pizza with any four ingredients," was $3.25. Extra cheese cost 35 cents.
Eventually, the business became so successful that it was selling more than a million sandwiches a year.
Mr. Gill developed a business relationship with John Paterakis, head of H&S Bakery, during the early days.
"He would pass it on his way home and would call my father and say, 'I have some fresh bakes, I'm coming home that way and I'll drop some off to you.' They were fresh off the line and were delivered in a brown paper bag, not plastic," his son recalled.
His son said Mr. Gill was a customer of H&S Bakery from 1957 to 2009, when his last sub shop closed.
From the beginning, Mr. Gill worked long hours: 10-to-12-hour days during the week and 14-hour days on weekends.
He added two more shops, one in Overlea and one on Kenwood Avenue. In the early 1960s, he partnered with a brother, Lloyd Gill Sr., and Michael Graziano, a brother-in-law, to expand the business when they formed Village Enterprises Inc.
Village Sub Shops would eventually ring the city — 14 of them — with stores on Joppa Road, Route 40 West, Liberty Road and in Dundalk, the Parkville Shopping Center, Loch Raven Plaza, Perring Parkway Plaza, Alameda Shopping Center, Padonia Village Shopping Center, Perry Hall Shopping Center and Rosedale Shopping Center.
His son said the shops were popular with Baltimore Colts players, who came in after a night on the town.
"Artie Donovan would call at 2 a.m. and order five or six subs. They then came to the shop, ate them in the kitchen, when all my father wanted to do was go home because he was so tired, and they had to play football less than 12 hours later," his son said.
The most popular subs were the steak and cheese and cold cut, while pepperoni pizza was the big seller.