In a time of retreat for the national economy, the restaurant industry is holding its own -- and local restaurateur William J. Bateman is expanding.

Bateman and his partners, Marc Loundas and Charles Howard, own the popular Bill Bateman's Bistro restaurants in downtown Baltimore, Towson, Severna Park and Reisterstown. Another Bistro is under construction at North Plaza in Parkville, and two more are on the drawing board for Canton and in Hanover, Pa.

Bateman also has five carry-outs in Baltimore County.

Bateman and partners employ a total of about 450 people and bring in annual sales, he says, of about $3 million per location.

A native of Norfolk, Va., Bateman says he was raised "all over the United States" by adoptive parents, and has lived in Baltimore for 40 years. He considers himself a Baltimorean, and in his 20s, he worked as a record promoter -- helping such national singing groups as the Dells and the Angels.

Why did you take on the restaurant business?

Well, I always loved to cook. And in them days, if you said you were a cook, they figured you were gay. And I was so small, I didn't want to get beat up. So I never told anybody. I used to go in with the kitchen people, the chefs, and I'd learn. I always had a big interest in it.

[In 1985] Marc Loundas had the Padonia Station. It was Christmas, and I was in a toy store. A guy named Chip Cherry, who owned a country place called the Cub Hill Inn, asked if I wanted to be his partner. I said, "No."

And then I called Marc, and we bought it. And it just took off. And that was the first Bill Bateman's -- actually, it was called Hooters. We had to change the name because Hooters was a national chain.

How is the work divided?

Well, Chuck actually is not involved in the day-to-day operation; Marc and I are. Marc is the head of administration, and I'm the kitchen end. Marc does a great job at what he does, and I try to do my job.

And, of course, you're nothing without your staff. And that's what we try to build. We try to work it out so the help ends up with a partnership in Bill Bateman's.

How hard is it to find good people?

With the way the economy is, very hard. Basically, the restaurant business is a weekend business. People want to be with their families, which makes it very difficult. It's not an easy job.

Why are you expanding now, given the national economy?

People have got to eat [laughs]. And, you know, I've been blessed -- probably. I've built up a local name. The local people pretty-well backed me from Day 1, and they seem like they're still backing me.

I just hope it keeps on going. You never know in this business: One time, you could keep a menu for 15 years. Today, you have to change the menu twice a year, three times a year.

How do you keep up with what people like?

You're always studying that. One time, cajun food was in. Now Southwestern. You have to travel around, look at different concepts and try to figure out what the public wants.

If I'm in a restaurant, I might go back into the kitchen, put something together, and say: "Take that out. See if the customers like it."

So, you still enjoy doing this?

You never stop, because it's interesting. That's one thing about cooking. It never gets boring.

Is Baltimore a restaurant town?

Most [restaurant owners] have been very successful here. Most of the chains that have come in here are doing very well. Baltimore's just like any major metropolitan area.

So the city is a good place for restaurants, right?

Yeah, I think so. I wouldn't be dumping the money into it if I didn't.

Which location does the most business?

The most business right now is Severna Park. The only reason Towson isn't is that the state's remodeling the building -- and it's really cut into us because of parking. You also need a road map once a week to find out which way to get into the building. We're off about 20 percent.

Everybody'll be grateful when they finish. The building's looking great. It's just going through the pains of it for almost two years now. [The state] never gave us a deadline for finishing. Now, they're saying April.

Do you get much tourism business at Power Plant Live?

Not really. The tourists are not coming over here. In the summertime, you get some.

This is basically a summer operation. It's good at lunchtime in the winter. But, Monday through Wednesday, Sunday through Wednesday, you can shoot a cannon down here. We've been staying open; most of the other places close at night. The Cheesecake Factory, down at the Inner Harbor, they've got lines. We figure maybe some of them will come over, but they don't.

If you were mayor, what would you do to bring out more customers?

Stop the killings. I'm a little disappointed in the mayor. They talk, but I don't see things getting done. I don't know what happened to the kids. It's drugs.

If we can't stop the drugs, we're not going to stop the killings. And I think it's not just Baltimore: New York cleaned it up. I don't know how they did it, but it's a shame at what's going on down here.

Another thing that happens in the city is the parking. It is so high down here. After the people get off from work, they go out to where they live -- and nobody comes back, except on the weekends.

Now the weekends, it's different. But during the week, it's the Inner Harbor. In fact, the Inner Harbor's been down for the last two years.

I guess it's fair to say you're not that optimistic about Baltimore?

I'm disappointed -- and I'm from the city.