Bill Bateman never donned a cap and gown, never shifted the tassel from one side of the mortarboard to the other, never clutched a diploma.
He’s revealing this, the regret evident in his eyes, as he sits at a table sipping a glass of HobNob Pinot Noir at the Parkville restaurant that bears his name. There are 17 other such restaurants scattered from Edgewater to southern Pennsylvania, a mini chicken empire that has rendered Bateman’s name synonymous with Buffalo wings in this city.
When he opened his first joint, a tiny 44-seat bar and grill on Harford Road, 25 years ago, he hoped to do $400,000 of business. It grossed $1.1 million in the second year, and the rest is hot-sauce-slathered history.
“I have no education,” says Bateman, who dropped out of Kenwood High School in ninth grade. “I wouldn’t recommend anyone do it, but, unfortunately, I did. The customers are the ones that made me. It’s a great honor that people still come in, recognize you, say hello. To be able to earn that trust . . . I love them.”
The feeling is mutual. Bill Bateman’s devotees gobble up 80,000 pounds of chicken wings a month. The chain, a mix of corporate-owned, franchised, and licensed restaurants, even has locations in BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport and M&T Bank Stadium, so plane passengers and visiting football fans are now spreading the Bateman’s gospel throughout the country.
Despite the expansion into terminals and concourses, most Bateman’s still manage to retain the genuine neighborhood hangout feel Applebee’s lusts after. Hosts greet customers by name. Regulars ask about each other’s kids. Strangers strike up conversations at the bar: “How bad are the O’s gonna be this year?”
These days Bateman spends most of his time at the North Plaza location off Joppa Road, but his easygoing Baltimore everyman persona permeates each one. There’s not a pretentious bone in his body, a fact reflected in the food and feel of his restaurants.
“You tell your help,” Bateman says, “don’t matter who walks in, what they have, how much they tip, treat them like they’re the number-one person in that restaurant.”
Robin Goetz is sitting where she does every Monday evening—at the Bill Bateman’s Bistro bar in Glen Burnie. She’s joined by three friends and a tall, cold Bud Light. Later she’ll switch to a cocktail that tastes like toasted almonds.
“I don’t know what’s in it, but I know it’s good,” she says.
She’s never met Bill Bateman, but when asked what she associates with the man, she doesn’t hesitate.
Nothing he could hear would make Bill Bateman happier.
Bill Bateman won’t divulge his age.
“Women don’t tell their age, I ain’t tellin’ mine,” he says, slyly smiling.
He’s older than the version pictured on Bateman’s menus, website, and bottles of hot and barbecue sauce, but the warmth of his smile hasn’t cooled.
He’s old enough to have brought acts like The Supremes and The Temptations to Club Venus, the long-ago shuttered Baltimore County nightspot he booked bands for in his younger days.
He’s old enough to know that he never really knew his mother, and certainly old enough to convey that his childhood is a subject on which he’d rather not expound.
“I was born in Norfolk, VA, but I came here when I was a puppy,” he says.
When was that?
“Too long ago.”
Bateman “came out of my mother working,” and when he quit school, he landed a job as a night manager at an A&P grocery store in Essex. In his mid-20s, he parlayed relationships with friends into an opportunity to promote records, which led to booking and managing bands. So how did a kid who barely finished middle school come to manage acts like The Dells and The Angels?
“Luck,” he says. “People helped me out.”
His friends and associates would argue otherwise.
“He’s got great common sense; he reads people well,” says Marc Loundas, who worked with Bateman back in his music management days and is now a partner at Bateman’s. “He might not have the formal education, but he’s a smart guy, and he’s a winner.”
Long stretches on the road and work nights that ended at sunrise characterized Bateman’s life in the music business, and by the mid ’80s, he had grown tired of it.
Always a serious amateur cook (true to form, he’s had no formal culinary training), he used to roll into the small kitchen in Loundas’s office at noon with a bag of groceries and whip up lunch. Rarely were there leftovers.
“I’m lucky, I’ve got great taste buds,” he says. “I’ve been blessed that way.”
The men opened their first restaurant on Harford Road in 1987. They called it Hooters, though today neither can remember exactly why. They became aware of the Florida-based chain after customers informed them, but believed (incorrectly, it turned out) that its trademark didn’t extend to Maryland.
“I said, ‘What are you gonna do if nobody comes in?’” Loundas remembers. “He said, ‘I’ll go door-to-door and get them to sample the food.’ I have no doubt he would have done that.”
The grassroots campaign wasn’t necessary. From the jump, the restaurant was a hit with virtually everyone except lawyers for that “other” wing-serving Hooters, which threatened to sue.
“We were sitting down having a drink one night fooling around with [new] names,” Loundas says. “I said, ‘Let’s call it Bill Bateman’s.’ He said, ‘That’s a great idea.’” The “Bistro” was added for aesthetics.
For seven years, Bateman cooked seven days a week. The wings came packed in ice; he cut each one by hand. (They were $0.19 a pound back then.)
“He used to work in the kitchen and would bring some of his concoctions out and say, ‘What do you think of this?’” recalls Ed Nastalski, a Bateman’s customer then and now. “I keep coming back.”
So do others. Nick Catramados, 22, is starving when he saddles up to the bar at the Glen Burnie location he first visited with his mom. He purposely hasn’t eaten all day. On Mondays he fasts so he can consume as many wings as possible. All-you-can-eat for $9.99—Catramados takes that as a challenge.
“I try to put away 50,” he says. “It’s all about the pace.”
He starts with original Buffalo, one of 16 varieties on the menu. Besides the atomic (“Bill’s Hottest Wings, they will make you remember where you ate the next day!”), most strive for flavor over heat.
“It’s nothing to make hot wings. You can make them as hot as you want with jalapeño, whatever peppers you want,” Bateman says. “Getting the flavor so people can enjoy it is another thing.”
While his restaurants have become known for chicken, Bateman also takes pride in the falling-off-the-bone ribs, seafood, and home-style meatloaf.
“His influence is on everything on the menu,” Loundas says. “He’ll take something as simple as a cheesesteak and look for a better roll, better cheese. We just got into oysters, and he’s been tasting oysters from 20 different places. It’s his work and his hobby. It’s his passion.”
Bill Bateman is being blinded.
From his vantage point at the back of one of the dining rooms in North Plaza, a small lamp clipped to a chalkboard near the hostess stand advertising tonight’s special—an eight-ounce jumbo-lump crab cake and fries for $10—happens to also be shining directly into his eyes. Whether it bothers him or not is irrelevant; it might bother a customer. He summons an employee to turn it off.
Out of the corner of his eye, he notes that the wood paneling above a nearby booth needs refinishing.
“You think of this as your home,” he says. “The customers have to feel at home. Everything is important, but the little things are the most important.”
Bateman’s wife, Carol, soon joins him for a glass of wine. They eat and drink here frequently, almost as if it’s an extension of the kitchen table at their waterfront Bowleys Quarters home. He never had children of his own (Bateman’s first wife, Michele, passed away in 2007), and while he’s enjoying spending time with Carol’s three kids and seven grandchildren, he’s always considered his customers his extended family.
“Tell them to give you a drink on me,” he calls out as longtime customer Ed Nastalski walks toward the bar. “Then tell them to [charge] double on your check.”
Both men laugh, and as the scene around them crystallizes—every table, booth, and bar stool in the 350-seat restaurant occupied, more people outside waiting patiently to be seated—a realization sets in.
Bill Bateman is the sharpest guy in the place.