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Being Matt Baumgartner

The well-known owner of several Capital Region restaurants and nightspots—as well as a new clothing line—talks about his passions and insecurities, the tragedy that changed his life, and why he can’t sit still

by Erin Pihlaja on September 27, 2012 · 2 comments

 

When local restaurateur Matt Baumgartner announced that he was launching a clothing line, there seemed to be two distinct reactions among people who knew him. The first was unquestioning acceptance, as in: “Sure. Why not?” The second reaction was more like a raised eyebrow and a quick shake of the head, as in: “Huh?” Crossovers aren’t always accepted in our culture: We cringe at the model-turned-actress stereotype, and openly mock the aging-actor-turned-rock-star cliché with an all-knowing derision that only the masses can so gleefully possess. So, why should Baumgartner, owner of multiple successful eateries, nightspots, and now the menswear company Howes and Baum, be considered any different?

Then again, for someone who appears to succeed at almost everything he does, why not?

Originally from Utica, Baumgartner attended Union College in Schenectady, where he majored in Spanish and Economics. After graduating he worked for General Electric in financial management, but left after just over a year. “I hated it,” he says, sitting comfortably in his Manhattan apartment where he spends about half of his time; the other half is spent at his loft in Albany.

After leaving GE, he opened Bombers Burrito Bar on Lark Street with a college friend, Lynn Beaumont. During the year that he planned the new business, he drove an ice cream truck in the Scotia-Glenville area.

photo by Erin Pihlaja

“It’s not as much fun as you’d think,” he recalls. “The worst part was seeing the kids not allowed to have ice cream looking at the kids who could.” When Bombers finally opened in 1997, Baumgartner happily said goodbye to the frozen-treats truck and successfully built what is now a familiar Capital Region mainstay.

The next 15 years after Bombers were a whirlwind for Baumgartner, who opened up another four restaurants (Noche—which closed and eventually reopened as Wolff’s Biergarten—the Olde English Pub & Pantry, and Bombers Schenectady), launched a short-lived weekly magazine (City Voice), started a popular internet blog (Friday Puppy), franchised a Bombers in Troy, bought a fifth restaurant set to launch as Sciortino’s next week, and developed a menswear line that has already been picked up in stores from Los Angeles to Japan. Believe it or not, that’s only the short list. He also sings with the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, gives to multiple charities, and does weekly volunteer work with Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an agency in New York City that assists low-income people living with HIV.

Baumgartner looks like the guy who has everything, and in most respects, he does. He is fit and attractive, and appears to be healthy and happy. In addition to his lengthy resume, he owns multiple real-estate properties, including a condo in Panama that he has yet to visit. He has a legion of fans and followers and a handful of close and loyal friends who are fiercely protective of him. He drives a nice car and wears fashionable clothes. His apartment in Chelsea opens up to a courtyard, and he socializes at trendy New York nightspots. His Albany loft is an impeccably designed den he shares with his two black Labrador retrievers.

He moves fast. Trying to keep up with him is exhausting if not impossible. Walking, driving, speaking, or thinking—he seems to be capable of operating only in one gear, and it’s the fifth. He played three varsity sports in high school: soccer and golf, and swim team as a competitive diver. He continued to dive through college and describes the sport as “mental” because it causes you to “push yourself individually.” He mastered a front three-and-a-half off of the high board, but was stopped by a trick called the “inward” on the low board. He says, “I feel like I failed, the inward won.”

Readers of his blog have no doubt noticed the proliferation of iPhone pics he has posted of himself getting pulled over by police officers while driving. “In my defense, they are not all speeding tickets,” he says. “My mom made me promise to stop posting those pictures.”

 

Baumgartner is extremely close with his family, and these relationships undoubtedly have played a major influence in his life. “My father’s side of the family was very blue-collar,” he says. “They were very rural. He worked on a farm growing up. My mom’s side of the family was Italian, and they had a little bit more of a creative side. There weren’t a lot of entrepreneurs in my family, but there was a lot of emphasis on work ethic. My dad would wake us up on Saturday mornings so we could pile wood.”

While Baumgartner, along with his two brothers, picked up characteristics and influences from both their mother and father, it was an incident involving their father that reshaped Baumgartner’s adult life in a way that would affect him forever. In 2000, after a period of marital differences, Baumgartner’s father committed suicide. He was already separated from Baumgartner’s mother, and she and the three boys were notified of the tragedy while they were on a family vacation.

“I was angry,” recalls Baumgartner. “I drank heavily and avoided it for a year or so, stewing in my own kind of emotion.” He recounts this period in his life frankly, almost robotically.

“I worried about [my sons],” says Baumgartner’s mother, Rosanne MacPhail. “It’s hard when you’ve gone through your whole adult life and then this terrible thing happens. I wondered, ‘Would they be able to have happy lives?’”

MacPhail became a suicide co-facilitator for 8 years, helping others overcome the intense and unique grief that the families of suicides feel. Through this work, she also found her own wounds healing. “You can be victims or survivors—we all chose to be survivors,” she says of herself and her sons.

Baumgartner got through that first year of crippling emotions, and found a new inspiration for life. “I realized I had to get out from under the negative feelings,” he says. “I decided I didn’t want to have regrets or feel stuck. I didn’t want to get old and regret not taking chances—to the point where now I probably take on too much.”

From that point on, Baumgartner went full throttle. Before his father’s death he had only owned Bombers in Albany. Afterwards, he initiated a series of projects and launched one almost every year. He also decided to come out as a gay man.

“My mom came to visit in Albany around 2001,” he remembers. “She took me to lunch and said that she needed to tell me something. She said, ‘I started dating someone, his name is Pete.’ I told her that I just wanted her to be happy. Then I said, ‘I have something to tell you. I am dating someone and his name is Steve.’” Baumgartner’s mom was accepting of his news, and he used this straightforward approach with his brothers as well.

“We were in Hawaii and this waitress was hitting on me,” he says. “I didn’t take her number, and my brothers were like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ I said, ‘I’m gay—fine!’”

Baumgartner cannot recall his family ever using hate speech or any slurs against minorities. He found this same acceptance from his friends as well. “There is not a single friendship that I have lost because of my coming out,” he says.

 

These days, Baumgartner is sitting on what many might consider an empire (by Albany standards). He is definitely living a life that many people would envy, but few would be able to maintain.

When Baumgartner used to run a new project by his mom, she was hesitant. MacPhail recalls, ‘I used to ask, ‘Matt, are you sure?’ I don’t anymore, he’s learned from things that didn’t work.” While Baumgartner’s current businesses are successful and he employs over 200 people, not all of his ideas have worked out. He doesn’t consider the restaurant Noche to be a success, nor would he repeat the weekly magazine.

“I was in over my head, it was too ambitious of a business idea,” says Baumgartner. “You learn your lesson in everything. When the clothing line was starting I thought a lot about that paper. This time, I surrounded myself with tons of people who were experienced in this field.”

It’s a business model that has served him well. “I have an accountant and she’s amazing, she’s like my guardian angel,” Baumgartner says. “Over the years I’ve learned that you should allow people who you trust to take over the aspects of business that you’re not good at. I’m not good at doing a schedule and I’m not good at doing the bills.”

“We’re good business partners,” says Demetra Vann, one of his current partners in Wolff’s, Old English, and Sciortino’s, which is set to open soon in the old Miss Albany Diner. “We’re all good at something. Matt has the visions. He can see things sometimes before we can see them.”

One of those visions was the revamping of Noche, which the group had sold but then regained ownership of after the contract failed. Originally a high-end bar, Noche tried to capitalize on the seemingly robust economy of the mid-2000s. “We took our beautifully designed Noche and tore it down. We had leather booths, red lanterns, beautiful glasses, and $200 bottle service,” recalls Vann. “We put up picnic tables and told people they could throw peanuts on the floor. I didn’t see the whole vision, I definitely wasn’t on board. Now Wolff’s is my baby, you can eat and do everything you want for $20.”

Howes and Baum represents the latent fashion desires of both Baumgartner and his business partner, Craig Howes. They met at a party in Miami and two years later decided to launch a clothing company together.  Like many of the businesses that Baumgartner has started, this one came together with a bit of sheer determination, some collaboration, and a lot of learning on the fly. He spent about a year researching the industry, and found his designer on Craigslist. “[Howes and I] went to Starbucks and met with like 20 designers, 19 of which were crazy, crazy creepy people,” says Baumgartner. “One guy, Bradley, was the best out of all of them. He’s around 40 [years old] and comes with a lot of experience. He’s a great resource and he came with a lot of contacts, which is really helpful.”

Baumgartner is looking forward to expanding the line and its presence in different markets. But, even though he’s got the showroom, the designer, the merchandise, and the vendors, he still has a hard time owning this new passion. “It’s a little uncomfortable saying with confidence that I’m in fashion because I truly don’t come with any experience outside of being a customer and an observer,” he says. “But I think like with anything, you sort of gain confidence. I didn’t consider myself a chef or someone that had experience in the restaurant business, but now I can say with confidence that I’m in the restaurant business.”

His insecurity is something that most people wouldn’t expect. When he is in his element, in one of his restaurants, he appears to be the most self-assured person in the room. “I’m confident in what I’m good at, if you asked me to help you set up a restaurant I would do that with complete confidence,” he says. But outside of those safety zones he struggles.

“I’m not good at public speaking,” he says. I have debilitating anxiety about it. If you were to say, ‘I’m having a birthday party, could you just come and give a toast at the birthday party?’ I would say no. If you asked me to be the best man at a wedding I would say no because I wouldn’t give a speech.”

Beaumont, his former business partner, recalls, “It is the worst. We both spoke at Union around five years ago, he was trembling. It was noticeable where people might wonder, ‘What’s wrong with that guy?’”

Which may be good for the local political machine, since Baumgartner says it’s this fear that keeps him from delving too far into local politics. He is currently on the Democratic committee for the 4th Ward in Albany, and has always followed politics. When Sen. Roy McDonald voted for the Marriage Equality Act in 2011, Baumgartner rented a huge billboard thanking him.

“He is very intelligent and knows politics very well,” says Mark Longstreth, a friend of Baumgartner’s for the past four years. “He is fair-minded and has a vision for Albany. He’d be great on a local level because he really cares.”

Does he have mayoral aspirations? “I would be lying if I said that it doesn’t cross my mind,” Baumgartner says. Coming from someone who told their mother at 12 years of age that he wanted to be an entrepreneur, and ended up being right—it just may be in his cards.

So why should this new fashion venture work out for the guy known mostly as a successful restaurateur? While nothing is certain, it seems as though Baumgartner has been dealt a pretty good hand so far. There’s his somewhat infamous lucky streak (he once won a hand of poker that paid out $20,000 to help start his first business), and he just seems to defy the rules that the rest of us are bound by. He may know how to hold ’em, fold ’em, or when to walk away, but he’s just not satisfied yet.

“I feel like because I had such a great childhood–my family, and my friends were so amazing it’s difficult to feel like an adult that I can ever be happier than I was then,” says Baumgartner. “It still feels lacking, so I just stay busy.”