It’s early afternoon on a weekday and I’m at Wolff’s Biergarten in downtown Albany’s Warehouse District. Maintenance crews are working nearby as the sun streams in through the garage door-style opening. A few older gentlemen are bellied up to the bar and small groups of people are strolling in for lunch.
Wolff’s owner, Matt Baumgartner, and I are sitting at one of the many wooden picnic tables, under the Spaten beer and international flags hanging from above. Baumgartner admits that when he was working in financial management at General Electric he never could have imagined being in this place, in this role. Unhappy with the nine-to-five lifestyle, he left what most would consider a good job to start his own business.
“[In entrepreneurship] it feels like you have zero safety net if things go bad. But if you want to win big, you have to take chances and take some big risks,” he said.
That’s precisely what he’s done on the way to building a reputation as a successful restaurateur in the Capital Region. Baumgartner owns the pizzeria next door to Wolff’s, Sciortino’s pizzeria, as well as The Olde English Pub & Pantry down the street in Downtown proper, and two locations of Bombers Burrito Bar, one in Schenectady, and another in the place that started it all, on Lark Street in Albany. He helped launch Bombers’ first franchise last year, across the river in downtown Troy. Fall 2014 will bring an Oneonta Bombers location, and a second Wolff’s Biergarten in Schenectady.
Baumgartner got his first taste of Albany as a student at Union College in Schenectady. After that, he worked for General Electric in North Carolina. While visiting Boston as part of GE’s training program, he stumbled upon a Mexican restaurant “with a cool vibe,” as he puts it, called Big Burrito, and thought a similar model could work on Lark Street. He opened Bombers in 1997, and since then has added continually to his business portfolio.
But Baumgartner’s entrepreneurship isn’t restricted to the Capital Region, or to restaurants for that matter. In 2012 with his friend Craig Howe, he launched a men’s fashion label called Howes and Baum. The brand’s modern, outdoorsy look started with long johns and sweaters, and is being sold in Japan, Vancouver, Los Angeles and online via the company’s website. Like most of Baumgartner’s enterprises, its inspiration comes from his family and his geographical experiences. He grew up in rural Utica and his grandfather was a logger in the Beaver Falls (Lewis County) region, he said.
“I’ve always wanted to do something in fashion and felt myself getting older and regretting not having tried that at an earlier age,” Baumgartner said.
Baumgartner remembers all of his childhood ventures, like his paper route, selling golf balls he found in the woods, and hosting countless lemonade stands. He always preferred to make money by working for himself.
These days his home base is Albany, but he spends a few days each week at his apartment in New York City’s West Village, and he winds down at his cabin on Burden Lake in Averill Park (Rensselaer County).
“It’s really beautiful. It feels like you’re a hundred miles away,” he said.
It’s funny sitting in Wolff’s, the discarded peanut shells on the floor cracking beneath our feet and TVs showing soccer matches from around the world. This space used to be Noche, Baumgartner’s upscale nightclub adorned with black leather couches and bottle service; it didn’t make it. Baumgartner, like other entrepreneurs who sometimes miss the mark, learned from that experience.
“I come from a very casual, working class family. So I think when I try to attempt high-end [atmospheres] like Noche, it didn’t feel like a good fit for me. I think I do better in a casual sort of environment,” he mused.
Wolff’s, which has become a haven for soccer fans, hosted a 2014 FIFA World Cup Kickoff block party in front of the bar the opening weekend of the tournament. They have been broadcasting all of the tournament’s games to the delight of large crowds.
Baumgartner took another risk in 2011 when he purchased a digital billboard on Interstate 787 advocating for marriage equality. The message was intended for an audience of one and said: “To: Sen. McDonald – Please support marriage for ALL loving couples.” Senator Roy McDonald (R-Saratoga) eventually crossed party lines and voted in favor of the legislation. It passed, and New York became the largest state at the time to allow gay marriage. Baumgartner, an openly gay man, said that the issue was more important than business.
“I was willing to risk some customers if it meant not having some closed-minded people coming in for a burrito. It seemed like it was worth it,” he said.
For all Baumgartner’s success, he doesn’t have a crystal ball, nor does he seem to want one. And with each new venture, he leaves an old, restrained life further behind.
“Something always comes up. Five years ago I didn’t think I would be doing a clothing line so I try not to commit to what my future is going to be like because it always seems to change.”
Matt Baumgartner’s New York State of Mind
“The greatest thing about New York State is that you can be a couple hours from the best city in the entire world and then leave and go to the Adirondacks that afternoon and go swimming in a beautiful, clean lake. It just seems like it has the best of both extremes.”