Food and family at heart of Baumhower’s new playbook
As a pro football player, Bob Baumhower was famous for not letting people run past him. Now, as he prepares for a new phase in the growth of his restaurant empire, he seems to be getting comfortable with the idea.
Especially if the people running around the field — his field — are his own kids.
On a weekday afternoon, Baumhower sits in what is his newest restaurant, though not for long, the Baumhower’s Victory Grille at the Shoppes of Bel Air Mall in Mobile. His oldest son, Spencer, is supposed to join him, and the 25-year-old is in sight. Past the big horseshoe-shaped bar, across a room that manages to feel airy despite scores of large television screens hanging everywhere, he’s behind the counter in the open kitchen, working on orders.
Baumhower notes a computer screen tracking orders and the time it’s taking to fill them. Like the back line, it’s not hidden away where only employees can see how well, or how badly, things are going. “He’s expediting those,” Baumhower says.
Meanwhile, Baumhower’s oldest daughter, Anne Katherine, who’s also working, swings by for a hug. She’s 22 and on the verge of earning an engineering degree at the University of South Alabama — “Is that cool or what?” says her dad. “An engineer. And she’s a hell of a soccer player.”
Younger sister Allie, who’s studying physiology at the University of Southern Mississippi, isn’t here today, but Baumhower’s youngest, 18-year-old Wesley, is. He zips back and forth between his father’s table and his older brother, coordinating.
Back in the summer of 2015, all four kids were working at the now-closed Baumhower’s at The Wharf in Orange Beach. They got the name “The Baum Squad.” (Because, you know, “Killer B’s” had already been taken.)
“Wes developed a reputation for being a beast at busboy,” says his dad.
The elder Baumhower goes on to explain that he hasn’t forced any of his kids to plan a career at Aloha Hospitality, his restaurant operations company. He’s just pressured them to go hard after what they love, he says. It just so happens that Spencer, who’ll turn 26 in late April, plans to put his University of Alabama business degree to work at Aloha. He was “hell-bent to do this,” the elder Baumhower says.
Orders cleared, Spencer arrives.
“I graduated with a business degree, and I’m slinging chicken wings,” Spencer Baumhower says at one point in the conversation that follows. By which he doesn’t mean that he’s doing a job that’s beneath him. What he means is, he embraces the fact that it’s his job to do what needs doing, not to stand around bossing while it goes undone.
“This is a very tough and all-consuming business,” his father says of the restaurant trade. And one reason for putting the kids to work early was to let them experience that for themselves.
“It’s definitely a family thing,” says Spencer Baumhower.
He’s stepping up at a pivotal time for his father and for the company. Bob Baumhower, who has led Aloha to the point where it comprises 11 restaurants, says “I’m to the point now, I don’t know what I would do without him.”
“The plan is for him to run the whole show,” says Bob Baumhower.
Willing as he is to sling those wings, Spencer Baumhower says he’s a numbers guy. “My strength has always been P and L [profit and loss] analysis, numbers, dollars, cents, where it’s going,” he says. When he says he can picture himself moving in the direction of becoming the company’s chief financial officer, his dad is quick to say, “more toward CEO.”
To Spencer Baumhower, the hands-on experience serves to bolster that strength. “Running any business, if it’s going to be successful, you have to understand what’s going on,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to relate it to what’s going on on paper … Having an operational background is a huge advantage no matter what business you’re in.”
Maybe the playbook is still being written, but some things are in sharp focus. Aloha is looking forward to substantial growth, which likely will include new locations in Huntsville and the Birmingham area. The Bel Air location’s layout and menu are a template for stores to come. And that growth means the chain has to develop a training program that can scale to handle new locations and new hires.
“This is kind of the prototype for all the future restaurants,” says Spencer Baumhower. That includes the open kitchen, which gives a diner-style feel to the bar at the back of the restaurant. Patrons there can see a lot of the action, including final garnishing and quality control, and will be able to interact with the head chefs.
“I tell people, when you’re here, you’re on stage,” says manager-in-training Mary Hooker. “I always call it a dance.”
She’ll take over when the new staff is fully established; Spencer Baumhower, who oversees training, will go where he’s needed. Which likely includes travel to new stores.
Aloha currently comprises 11 restaurants. That’s the upscale Dauphin’s, on the 34th floor of the RSA BankTrust building in downtown Mobile, plus 10 Baumhower’s locations in Huntsville, Auburn, Montgomery, Hoover, Tuscaloosa and Daphne. In the next couple of months, Bob Baumhower plans to open what he describes as a “Cuban speakeasy,” La Flordita, in downtown Mobile. He also expects to add at least two more Baumhower’s in the near future.
“We’re getting ready to open another store in Huntsville,” and likely another in Vestavia Hills, he says. “We’re looking at an opportunity in Pensacola right now,” he says. “Actually we have a a few opportunities, at least two of them will happen for sure in the next year.”
In the end, it comes down to the food. As Baumhower’s grew, it developed a sprawling menu heavy on heavy stuff: “gooey fries,” wings, burgers and so on. At the new store they’ve added a few lighter items but also “leaned out” the abundance of options, as Spencer Baumhower puts it, getting rid of some of the “clutter.”
There’s still a lot in there. The “Main Event” section alone includes several flavors of grilled chicken, grilled and fried shrimp, grilled fish, chicken tenders, boneless and regular wings, hamburger steak, meatloaf and ribeye. Burgers range from the 1/3-pound “Tailgate” to the monstrous “Victory” built around two half-pound patties. The lunch menu includes wraps, chicken-salad sliders and grilled fish tacos. Daily specials can include interesting flavors such as a sweet Thai bowl, Buffalo cauliflower and a teriyaki wing-finger bowl.
They’ve “rejuvenated” the menu, Spencer Baumhower says, putting in lighter fare such as salads, which they think will play well with millennials, but without giving up old favorites.
“I come in all the time, I get like a salad and wings,” says Spencer Baumhower, who played two years for the Crimson Tide under Nick Saban. “I try to keep it balanced.”
Fear not, sports fans: They haven’t “leaned out” the taste. A recent lunch visit started with the Bam Bam Shrimp and moved on to the Killer Bee.
The shrimp are fried with a crisp crust drizzled with a sweet chili sauce, a presentation that would overwhelm bland shrimp. But Bob Baumhower says he uses only Gulf Shrimp, and their taste and texture explodes once you get through the crust.
The Killer Bee is a “honey-glazed fried mojo chicken breast, kicked up with our Baumhower’s Legendary Hot Sauce, then laid on top of Herschel’s Mama’s golden brown waffles, topped with a fried egg.” So that’s a waffle topped with a huge slab of fried chicken topped with a sunny-side-up egg.
The overall flavor isn’t the conventional pairing of salty fried chicken over a buttery, syrup-sweet waffle. The honey and hot sauce skew it in a different direction, with less contrast but tangier. And man, is it a thing to behold. You will not come away hungry.
And yes, there are wraps and salads, including a “power blend” with baby spinach and baby kale, if you’re interested in keeping things balanced.
“We feel really good that we’re in a good place with the menu,” says Spencer Baumhower.
Expansion will put the new concepts, and Spencer Baumhower himself, to the test. It’s time.
“I’ve just always believed in the Baumhower brand as a whole,” he says. “I see the value in it.”