The question that a self-empowered engineering student will ask an economics student is, “What exactly are you going to do with an economics degree?”
There’s never a direct answer to that question, mainly because economics is a unique field of study, streching across several fields. A smart response to that question could be, “Whatever I’m at liberty to do.”
A Union alumnus who realized that potential early on, is Matt Baumgartner, better known as the Bombers Burrito King.
It was admittedly quite awesome to see and talk to the man who works at a restaurant that my friends and I eat at every other weekend. He just walked through the Concordiensis doors with his black labrador dog, Frank, at his side, and I was impressed.
Matt’s humble and easygoing, but professional manner was something to admire, and it wasn’t difficult to see why this man was successful in a business that many choose to avoid.
The upcoming restaurateur did an overnight stay at Union in 1990 to assist him in making the important decision of where he wanted to spend his college career.
Matt admitted he didn’t know what to expect from Union’s campus, but boldly affirmed that after his first night, it was definitely the campus for him. He enrolled as a member of the Class of 1995, and took extreme pride in the ‘work hard play hard’ environment.
It was a time when the Minerva Program was nonexistent, the Kappa Alpha Society was still on campus and having a full keg in someone’s dorm wasn’t all that uncommon.
Matt was quick to take part in the dynamic culture on campus, getting involved in Greek Life through the Sigma Chi fraternity. Amongst the Sigma Chi brotherhood he was always referred to as ‘Bomber,’ a nickname he has for unspecified reasons, but one that would follow him throughout his life.
“I really did learn a lot from being in a fraternity. It didn’t feel like a selective thing when I was (at Union), for me — everyone was in a fraternity,” Matt shared.
The Burrito King became a dedicated member of Sigma Chi and rose up the ranks and taking on several responsibilities within the fraternity itself such as being the social chair as well as being pledge master. In every role he held, he learned how to work within a budget and with limited resources. This turned out to be an incredible tutorial for him on how to manage a business, which he would use later on, at Bombers Burrito Bar.
Even with his involvement outside the classroom, he remained focused on his studies and passed through several courses, such as ECO-101 with Union’s very own Professor Shelton Schmidt. He remembers Schmidt’s class as being “freakin’ hard,” and after he received his diploma in 1995 he went off to work for General Electric Co. right in Schenectady, in their finance division.
GE would later relocate Matt to their office in the port city of Wilmington, N.C., with the requirement of attending corporate meetings in their Boston, Mass., office every few months.
In 1996, a shack restaurant in the Allston neighborhood was a popular lunch spot for Matt. Named Big Burrito, quickly became one of Matt’s favorites.
Every time Matt ordered a burrito from Big Burrito, he contemplated how the restaurant could do more, down to the very uniform of the employees.
Matt loved eating his BBQ pork burrito with sour cream so much that it seemed like a no brainer for him to open his own burrito shop, despite the fact that he had absolutely no cooking or restaurateur experience whatsoever.
Nevertheless, it was Matt’s incredible confidence and adventurous personality that made the marginal benefits exceed the marginal costs. And so, he pulled out all the stops in making his idea a reality.
First, Matt told his managers at GE that he was quitting his job. He had been there for almost two years, as soon as the necessary paperwork was completed, he went right to work in looking for a home for his project in the city of Albany, N.Y.
Matt discovered 258 Lark St. in a neighborhood that was on the cusp of becoming the epicenter for Albany’s gentrification. The financing began with a small loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which appropriated him $1,000. Unfortunately, Matt still had a long way to go.
The rest of the funds came from his poker winnings, which equated close to $15,000 from casinos across the tri-state area, a skill that affirms his ability of taking up high risks but being able to remain secure about where he stands.
Along with some extra loans from family and friends, he had a total of $100,000 to work with, and by the end of 1997, Matt opened his first burrito bar. He decided to use a name that represented ‘good times,’ and what better name to use, than ‘Bomber?’ Thus, Bombers Burrito Bar came to be.
Only four people worked at the first Bombers, and the small size of the operation made it easier to manage. Matt stated, “People make the mistake of opening up a very large restaurant and it’s a lot to learn, so we sharpened our teeth on a smaller scale.”
The first restaurant was an unbelievable success in the region and had an incredible fan base from across New York state. Not bad for someone with no cooking skills whatsoever! In additon to burritos, Matt wanted to try his hand at the bar business, and it’s definitely a good thing that he did because as a graduate of Union, it would be a bit of a shame if he didn’t.
Matt Baumgartner was seen as a rising star amongst Albany business leaders, and his successes were featured in many publications, such as the Albany Business Review. This grabbed the attention of the City Government of Schenectady.
Matt remembers getting a call from the City of Schenectady, and the direct message was that the Schenectady Mayor’s Office was asking him to open a Bombers Burrito Bar right in Schenectady.
Recalling the offer, Matt shared, “At the time, I wasn’t thinking about expanding. When I went to Union, downtown Schenectady was not a nice place, it was a sh*t hole, but when they showed me the space, it felt great so I took up their offer.” Within a year, a second Bombers Burrito Bar was opened to the public.
“(At Union) I learned a lot about how to throw parties and how to make sure people have a good time, and that prepared me more for what I do now, more so than some of my classes,” Matt stated. The atmosphere that Matt focuses on creating in each of his restaurants is one that was inspired from his time at Union, and one that he admits may possibly be the special ingredient to his success.
If you’re lucky, on some weekdays you may see Matt walking around the Union campus with friends or his dog, Frank, enjoying the beautiful scenery or just checking to see what’s new at his alma mater.
Matt Baumgartner definitely misses the experiences he had at Union, but hopes that current students are getting the most out of their time on campus.
The Burrito King has contemplated expanding his successful business, possibly opening a small-scale Bombers Burrito Bar on campus. There’s no doubt that ‘Bomber’ is confident about where he stands today. Matt has no regrets about quitting GE, or his flirtation with the game of poker, since both have proven to be integral in his successful enterprise.
Matt Baumgartner is certainly an alumnus to be respected and one of many answers to that question prompted by that engineering student in the beginning of this piece.
The combination of a degree in economics and the Union experience can be a powerhouse if used in the right way.
Before Matt left campus, one of his last remarks was, “I’ll be sure to come by and check out 821 at some point.” We haven’t seen the last of Bomber around the U, that’s for sure.