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Matt Baumgartner: Turning weakness into strength one burrito and beer at a time

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Matt Baumgartner: Turning weakness into strength one burrito and beer at a time

For Matt Baumgartner, it’s always about what’s next.
Matt Baumgartner: Turning weakness into strength one burrito and beer at a time
Matt Baumgartner, Owner of Wolff's Biergarten on Erie Boulevard in Schenectady Friday, November7, 2014.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

Matt Baumgartner takes a break from serving customers at his new Wolff’s Biergarten and slides onto a bench on the other side of the bar.

Sipping a Bitburger, the co-owner should be basking in his latest business triumph, the opening of a second Wolff’s, this one on Erie Boulevard in Schenectady, already packed a couple of nights into its debut week. This should be a celebratory beer.

Instead, as he often does, Baumgartner finds himself already fretting over what is going to be his next project. It’s always about what’s next. And when he’s looking ahead, he often finds himself sifting through his past for clues to why he is the way he is, or at least how he can deal with it.

“It would be wonderful,” he says, “if you could just stop thinking about it.”

The co-owner of two Bombers Burrito Bars (Albany and Schenectady, with a franchise in Troy and another franchise on the way in Oneonta), two Wolff’s Biergartens and Sciortino’s Pizzeria and The Olde English Pub & Pantry in Albany admits to being … bored.

“A little bit,” he says. “The whole challenge is to get it set up.”

Being bored chokes Baumgartner with anxiety. As it is, he can’t speak publicly in front of groups. He’s amiable and smooth as can be one-on-one or on social media. But even one of his best high school buddies, who teaches at their alma mater, can’t get him to speak in front of a class.

“I have a substantial bit of anxiety,” he says, raising his voice over an accordion performer a few feet away. “I channel it by being creative.”

At the end of the beer house’s first week, a pipe leading to Erie Boulevard failed, prompting the new Wolff’s to shut down for four days. Paradoxically, that didn’t faze Baumgartner.

“The things that are out of my control,” he says, “don’t stress me out as much.”

His anxiety lies elsewhere. For all his successes, mixed in with a few misfires over the years (an alternative newspaper, a clothing line), he still can’t stop fixating on the next project — specifically, that there will be one.

“If I don’t challenge myself with the next opportunity, I will get depressed,” the 41-year-old says. “My anxiety will take over.”

That is the inherent irony of Matt Baumgartner: His weakness is his strength. It’s the gnawing worry that drives him to reach new heights as an entrepreneur.

“It fuels me,” he says. “Without it, I would just be a gamer sitting at home on my couch.”

Rosanne MacPhail remembers a time when the middle of her three boys could sit quietly as a toddler and play by himself. But she also recalls a child who did not like following instructions.

”He never liked taking orders or direction,” Baumgartner’s mother said. “He would talk you out of him eating breakfast or wearing a certain jacket. He would wear you down.”

As a kid near his native New Hartford, outside Utica, he’d retrieve lost golf balls in the woods, clean them and sell them to country club golfers for 50 cents a pop. He made $30 or more a week that way, a lot of cash for a 9-year-old.

That was more to his liking than a later job at Ponderosa — he just didn’t take to having a boss.

Baumgartner says he picked up lessons about work ethic and respect and discipline from his father, Brandt, a teacher and later an industrial arts supply salesman. Mom and Dad both gave him his love for entertaining, but what dad did not have was his passion for taking risks.

High school buddy Andy Goodelle, the teacher who can’t get Baumgartner back to New Hartford High School to speak, said his friend was the risk-taker of the group. One indication: Baumgartner was a diver in high school and college.

Goodelle says the daring was just usual high school stuff, nothing outlandish, but Baumgartner quitting the General Electric Financial Management Program, the one he fought so hard to get into, to eventually start a burrito restaurant after winning $15,000 at Turning Stone Casino? That was different.

“That was a bold move,” Goodelle said. “He had the Bombers idea, and the rest is history.”

Lynn Beaumont knew Baumgartner at Union College and roomed with him in Albany’s Center Square neighborhood after the two graduated in 1995. She remembers him as an easy-going partier who was a great singer and even better whistler. After he left GE, he drove an ice cream truck around Scotia before becoming partners with Beaumont in the first Bombers Burrito Bar on Lark Street in Albany in 1997. It forged a pattern that would repeat itself: Baumgartner finds partners for his businesses among friends.

“It was fun. We were young, so we felt we didn’t have too much to lose,” said Beaumont, who later left the restaurant business and now owns Cheesecake Machismo, an Albany bakery. ”We were too young to be terrified.”

In 2000 came a moment that would change if not define Matt Baumgartner. At the age of 26, while on a family vacation in Phoenix, he learned his father had committed suicide.

“It just made me feel, ‘F— it, it will make me lead my life the way I want,’ ” Baumgartner says.

Within a year, he came out as gay to friends and family.

He is still trying to figure out why his dad, who had previously left Baumgartner’s mother, killed himself.

“I don’t know. I think it was the change,” the son says. “I think he realized he made a really big mistake. It was so surprising, He seemed so in control. It was ... weird.”

Baumgartner says he does not remember feeling anxious before then.

“I don’t understand it,” he says, but then, he gives a perfectly understandable explanation.

“I saw my dad took his life. I do not want to do that,” he says. “I really dwell on it. I do not want to be alone and think I did not take enough risks.

“I don’t know.”

Mark Graydon has known Baumgartner from the perspective of employee, manager and partner. He recalls sitting in the garden of The Olde English Pub they co-own last year when Baumgartner asked him to be a partner in the Schenectady Wolff’s. In the retelling, Graydon realized in the five years he’s known Baumgartner, he’s only been able to get him to stop and sit down like that maybe a handful of times.

“He always wants to be doing something,” Graydon said.

“I have to work on how to sit still, how to be content,” Baumgartner concedes.

Mark Fichera picked up on that, too. The two have known each other for a couple of years and have been dating for nine months.

“When we first started dating, I asked him, ‘Is there always going to be a project?’ ” said Fichera, a successful movie stuntman. “We have managed to create that time. He just needs to have other things going on to create that relaxation.”

Baumgartner does find moments to get away to his camp in Rensselaer County.

“I’ve never seen anyone happier than I’ve seen him at Burden Lake,” Fichera said.

Baumgartner, who jockeys between the Capital Region and an apartment in Manhattan, recently bought a 120-acre gentlemen’s farm in Averill Park. With six fields to clear and an idea to grow hops for sale, he might need some help. Maybe that’s what’s next.

So he has a new business. And a steady relationship. And a group of friends/business partners past and present loyal to him. And a farm to get up and running.

Things are going good, right? Still, he says his stress level is “maxed out.” So why not stop here, become a gentlemen farmer, reap the rewards of the businesses he’s already built and leave his anxiety behind?

Baumgartner waves away the idea. He likes building his restaurants. In some ways, many ways, he likes his anxiety, too. It makes him who he is.

“I’ll live with it,” he says before getting back to work. “It’s like my annoying little brother.”

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