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William N. Gill Sr., owner of Village Sub Shop chain

Founder of submarine sandwich shops had no idea how to make them or the pizza he served when starting

By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

6:13 PM EDT, October 8, 2013

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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.

The partners then established four Ice Cream Tree stores with locations in Towson, Hamilton, Kenwood and Dundalk, where 36 hand-dipped flavors were available along with such house specialties as banana splits, sundaes, shakes and sodas.

They later established the Steak & Rib Restaurant in the 5600 block of The Alameda in the late 1960s. It became the S & R Banquet Hall after the steakhouse moved to the 1600 block of E. Joppa Road near Baynesville in the 1970s.

While diners listened to music, they dined on thick-cut prime filet, stuffed jumbo lobster tail and the house specialty of French onion soup "served in a crock topped with Parmigiana cheese and baked to a golden brown," according to one newspaper reviewer.

In the 1980s, the partners dissolved their partnership, with Mr. Gill's son taking over his father's former stores while his nephew took over his brother Lloyd Gill Sr.'s interests.

In addition to the food business, Mr. Gill became a partner with William Steiner and established Atlantic Promotions, which brought to Baltimore such musical acts as Roger Williams, Johnny Mathis, the Kingston Trio, and the Dukes of Dixieland.

Mr. Gill was an active member of the Gardenville Lions Club and supported the Maryland School for the Blind.

He was a member of Eagles Nest in Phoenix, Baltimore County, where he enjoyed playing golf. He also was a sports fan.

A religious service will be held at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road, with graveside services being held at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, 200 E. Padonia Road.

In addition to his son, Mr. Gill is survived by his wife of 62 years, the former Gertrude Heilman; two daughters, JoAnn Gill-Becker of Towson and Linda Catherine Gill-Griffith of Delta, Pa.; and three grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com