Interview with Matthew Baumgartner
Matt Baumgartner knows how to turn risk into success. After quitting his job in a financial management program, he drove a Mr. Ding-A-Ling ice cream truck in Scotia and worked as a busboy at the Big House Brewery in Albany. Those initial steps ultimately led him to establish his first restaurant, Bombers Burrito Bar on Lark Street in Albany … with winnings from a poker game.
Since 1997, his wildly popular restaurants—Bombers, Wolff’s Biergarten and the Olde English Pub—have spiced up the Capital District’s nightlife. And he’s not done yet.
Regret motivates Matt more than failure. He’s driven by the belief that you can recover from failure but never reclaim lost opportunity. True to form, in December 2013, Matt bought 120 acres of farmland in Averill Park. He’s built a barn and is transitioning the land back into production, improving the quality of the pastures for grazing. The next step will bring heritage breed cattle and pigs on the land. Matt envisions that meat enhancing the menus of the Olde English Pub and Wolff’s Biergarten.
Sounds like another successful risk in the making.
Edible Capital District: Well, Matt, from biergartens and burritos to a farm. How will that venture impact your personal life and your business enterprises?
Matt Baumgartner: I’ve always wanted to own a gentleman’s farm since I was a kid. I’m hoping it will make my personal life happier, healthier and more enriched. I can’t wait to put up fences, seed down cover crops, establish farm roads. Plus, it will be great to use the meat from my own animals in some of my restaurants.
ECD: How did you eat as a kid growing up in central New York?
MB: I was very fortunate to grow up in a household in which my mom provided us with home-cooked meals, sit-down dinners, every weeknight. She always cooked and baked from scratch and used real food always. At the time I didn’t appreciate it, but now I’d kill to have that again.
ECD: And your habits now?
MB: I would say I’m a healthy eater who is also very weak. I try to eat organic, local meat and vegetables when I put the effort into it, but I cave to cravings of pizza and fast food more times than I care to admit.
ECD: Describe a typical workday, if there is such a thing for someone who oversees a burgeoning restaurant empire in the Capital District.
MB: There is absolutely no such thing as a typical workday. Every day is completely different depending on what pops up at the different properties. But checking e-mails, social media and returning phone calls are a big part of my workday.
ECD: What about your own kitchen
MB: I worked in the kitchen at Bombers for eight years. Mopping floors, doing dishes, prepping food, managing front of the house. I loved the simplicity, the mundane routines, knowing all the customers.
ECD: How do you unwind on the weekends?
MB: I drink anything with vodka in it and I try to relax up at my camp on Burden Lake as often as possible, in all seasons. Sometimes I turn on Bravo and don’t leave my couch.
ECD: Any surprising pastimes?
MB: The hobby that’s giving me the most enjoyment at the moment is trying to get the farm in healthy shape: cutting the fields, building the barns, putting up stone walls, etcetera. I love the nonstop nature of the projects.
ECD: Unexpected perks of having all these restaurants/bars/pubs under your purview?
MB: The ability to walk behind the bar and pour myself a free beer anytime I want is pretty great. I also love working with the different chefs and coming up with new menu items that I am partial to.
ECD: What inspired you to veer from a potential career with GE and dive into the world of food and drink?
MB: Simply put, I was miserable working in a cubicle. It just didn’t feel like it was benefiting my soul in any way. Plus, I find it’s always easiest to take risks when you’re miserable because you are so hopeful of a better way of life. After my father’s death in 2000, I have tried to live my life by taking as many chances as possible so that I have no regrets when I am older.
ECD: You’ve had obvious success with your burrito bars and biergartens. What happened with Noche nightclub and Sciortino’s?
MB: Noche was quite successful when we sold it. Sciortino’s wasn’t as successful as we would have liked because I think I overestimated the need for another Italian restaurant in Albany. I broke my own rule, which is never open up a restaurant based on what I want; open up a restaurant based on what everyone else wants.
ECD: You speak highly of the various business partners with whom you own several of the businesses. What’s the essence to these working relationships?
MB: My success is their success. I trust them implicitly and love them as people. Every business relationship has its up and downs, but our ups significantly outweigh the few downs. We work well together and respect each other and laugh a lot together. But that’s probably because of all the beer and wine we drink.
ECD: Who have been some of your mentors or sources of inspiration?
MB: I respect Angelo Mazzone’s work ethic and successes, Vic Christopher and Chris Pratt’s ability to always take chances, and Tess Collins’s devotion to her customers. I also will always be grateful to Debbie Klauber from Debbie’s Kitchen for giving me so much advice when I first opened up Bombers Burrito Bar on Lark Street.
ECD: All restrictions aside, what would be your next type of bar/restaurant? Or do you harbor some other distant vision?
MB: I would love to be an Uber driver one night a week. I have always (not so secretly) wanted to drive a taxi.
ECD: Any advice you’d offer to someone hovering at a fork-in-the-road life decision?
MB: Take the route that you think will make you the happiest. I always encourage people to quit their jobs and follow their dreams because the reality is that they aren’t going to end up living on the streets as a homeless person if it doesn’t work out. Failure is a very small part of the big picture in life, and it’s easy to bounce back after a failure if you believe in yourself.