The year was 1987 and the Cub Hill Inn, just across the street from the intersection of Cub Hill and Harford Roads, was going under. Unfortunate news for its operator, but what would turn out to be an awesome opportunity for then Cub Hill resident Bill Bateman.
Who is Bill Bateman?
Though you might be tempted to respond "who gives a ...", the answer is actually "Baltimore".
The slogan, once printed on a pack of matches at Bateman's first restaurant, has become something of a legend. So too has the man himself.
Bateman got his start booking bands for Club Venus. For years he worked to bring national acts like the Supremes, the Fifth Dimension and others to the nightclub that some of our older readers probably remember was located in Perring Plaza shopping center.
Working in the club industry gave Bateman, a self-trained cook, the opportunity to learn from some of his favorite chefs.
"When he'd be out on the town with a band and he'd have something he liked, he’d meet the chef, go back and talk to him. Ask him 'how did you make that, why did you do that?'" said Bateman's partner Mark Loundas.
Loundas and Bateman met while both were working in the entertainment industry: Loundas represented bands and Bateman booked them. The two were fast friends and eventually worked together at Starleigh Entertainment, a live entertainment agency they owned for a time.
Even then, Bateman's interest in the culinary shone through.
"Bill would stop at the grocery store and cook lunch for the staff [at Starleigh], we had maybe 10 people on the staff there," Loundas said.
"They always said I could never make it in a restaurant," Bateman said.
"Yeah—we always used to kid around that he couldn’t make money on [his food] because he made everything so big and so good," Loundas said.
The Starleigh staff couldn't have been more wrong: in 1987, when Bateman and Loundas heard the Cub Hill Inn was moving out of their Harford Road building, they jumped at the opportunity to open a restaurant.
Early on Bill Bateman was the one manning the grill and the fryers in the 44-seat neighborhood bar & grill which, for the first two years, was called Hooters.
"We bought it and remodeled it, Bill got to put to use all the stuff he practiced. His passion is food, he likes to experiment and change stuff around," Loundas said.
"For the first seven years I cooked everything in the kitchen," Bateman said.
Even today "everything on the menu is his, really," Loundas said. The menu has grown a lot in 25 years, but one thing that has always stayed consistent is a focus on chicken wings.
Bateman originally devised a recipe for buffalo style wings and was making 500-gallon batches of his sauce in a house next to the restaurant.
Today, the 16 sauce varieties are still made from scratch but the process has been contracted out. Still, the recipes are a closely guarded secret; who knows them? Bateman and the company that he contracts to produce them, who are under a confidentiality agreement.
"It's all in the vault," Bateman said.
Buffalo Wing King
In the first year they were open, Loundas and Bateman said they would have been content if their restaurant did $400,000 in business—a number they quickly surpassed.
As the number of Bateman's fans grew, the tiny Harford Road restaurant just couldn't keep pace.
"Harford Road was small, the kitchen was really small. It was like a double-size closet. People couldn’t get in there on the weekends," Loundas said. "They’d start calling in carry out orders, and the kitchen just couldn't handle them."
Bateman and Loundas opened up a carryout at the corner of Taylor Avenue and Oakleigh Road and worked there the first Super Bowl weekend it was open.
"We were out of wings. Went through 5,000 pounds of wings that day," Bateman said. "We had to call the chicken purveyor and get him to open up on a Sunday so we could get more chicken."
Today, hungry Bill Bateman's customers eat a startling 80,000 pounds of wings every month.
"We never really had any plans to take over the world," Loundas said. "We've always been into quality versus quantity."
Plans or no, Bill Bateman's has grown into chain of 17 restaurants—6 owned and operated by Loundas and Bateman, another 8 franchise locations and a few, like the Bill Bateman's in Bel Air, that operate under licenses.
"We’ve had a lot of great help over the years," Loundas said. "Three of our franchise locations were sold to former employees. That really makes you feel good."
A Baltimore Icon
When he's out in public Bateman, who now lives in Bowleys Quarters, is frequently recognized.
People want to pose for photos with him, and he said that sometimes at baseball games he'll be spotted and people will call out "Who is Bill Bateman!" to elicit the response once printed on the matches distributed at the Cub Hill bar.
Even as a successful restaurateur and a part of Baltimore pop culture, he's humble.
"The customers are the ones that made me," Bateman said. "It’s a great honor that people still come in, recognize you, say hello. To be able to earn that trust…I love them."
"You tell your help, doesn’t matter who walks in, what they have, how much they tip, treat them like they’re the number-one person in the restaurant," he said.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Bateman's restaurants, beginning in June every location will offer 25 cent wings on the 25th of each month through August.