From Burritos to Beer
A Capital Region restaurant owner cuts the ribbon on a biergarten in Troy.
Food and farming may be in his gene pool, but it took six years in a corporate cubicle at General Electric for restaurateur Matthew Baumgartner to realize life is too short not to follow your passion. “I was miserable sitting indoors without natural lighting and working for a corporation that didn’t care,” he says.
While he didn’t grow up on a farm, farms surrounded his family’s home in rural Utica, his dad was raised on a farm, and family members shared a love of cooking and food. Equally important in his DNA was having his own business — from the proverbial kid’s newspaper route and lemonade stand to his first restaurant, a Bombers Burrito Bar in Albany, which he opened in 1997 with winnings from a lucky casino night.
Now, at age 42, he’s the owner and partner in multiple brands: four Wolff’s Biergartens, two Bombers Burrito Bars, one Troy Cantina, an Olde English Pub in Albany, plus a sustainable farm outside the state capital. Cattle, chickens, and pigs are expected to arrive mid-May, and — inspired by his admiration for Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns acclaim — will become seasonal fare at his eateries.
Baumgartner’s newest restaurant is the Troy Wolff’s Biergarten; located in the same building, his Troy Cantina is directly above it, providing tacos and tequila. The biergarten opened this past April on busy King Street where other restaurants and bars help increase traffic. Location is a critical piece in his planning.
So are determination and creativity. Baumgartner conceived his original idea for what a biergarten should be after living in New York City and seeing how often people hung out at sports bars. He then added his own twist: There was no place upstate near his former stomping grounds that catered to a soccer-loving crowd.
On Tap in Troy: a new brewery serves up to two dozen draft beers.
He debuted his first biergarten in Albany; followed it up with a second in Schenectady, which he knew from his Union College days and employment at GE; and a third in Syracuse to test a larger market. Then, it was back to smaller Troy. Each biergarten is wide open with communal picnic-style tables and benches, a spacious bar, big-screen TVs, and rows of flags interspersed amid patio-style lights. Most importantly, there’s a well-curated inventory of the best German, Belgian, and Czech beers with about 20 to 24 drafts and 30 or so bottle choices, including his favorite wheat Franziskaner. “More isn’t better,” he says about selections. Instead of flights, there are free tastes.
Baumgartner also narrowed down the food choices to flavored pretzel sticks, traditional and wild game wursts, wings, farm-stand salads, pancakes, and sides like sauerkraut and red cabbage. Music is another key component, with a fine-tuned play list. Staffing reflects his people skills: He favors those who “like soccer, are nice, and don’t have bar experience so they won’t bring bad habits with them,” he says. “Amazing managers are also critical. I could never do this by myself.”
And while hours at the biergartens run from lunch to dinner seven days a week, they also open as early as 8 am on weekends when there’s a match. Do people really drink that early? “Absolutely,” he replies.
More biergartens are likely, since this entrepreneur would like to expand to larger cities where there’s greater interest in soccer — perhaps Columbus, Boston, D.C., he muses. “Syracuse gave me a bit of confidence to go further outside my comfort zone,” he says.
He believes much of his success is due to his ability to recognize failures, learn from mistakes, and move forward without regrets. He closed his Noche nightclub when he realized that “I hated wearing a tie and jacket, staying up until 4 am, and working for people who stressed me out,” he says.
He also learned that just because an idea is good doesn’t mean it will succeed. Case in point: his shuttered Sciortino’s, a small Italian restaurant in Albany with good food and ambiance that bore his mother’s maiden name. “It wasn’t something Albany was missing. It taught me you don’t open what you want, but what others do.”
Yet, in the case of Wolff’s Biergarten, he craved good German beers and wursts, and so have others, including the now lucky residents of Troy. Prost!
Wolff’s Biergarten, Troy. 518-244-5215; www.wolffsbiergarten/troy.com