Whether built in a basement or a boardroom, restaurant groups around the country are growing and evolving—relying on the strategies, vision, and passion that helped them survive and thrive in the first place.
It’s a thought that draws a swift and effortless laugh from Ty Neal, the co-founder and owner of Matchbox Food Group.
On the verge of the largest, most ambitious and, yes, daunting, expansion in the Washington, D.C.–based chain’s 12-year history, Neal rewinds back to the moment this dream all started.
For the majority of aspiring restaurateurs, securing that first lease in a hip, foot-traffic friendly, vision-reflective space is one of the toughest early challenges.
Neal, his brother Mark, and partner Drew Kim, had some additional issues with the weathered former grocery store on H Street in Chinatown, built in the 1920s. “There was a tree growing in there,” Neal quips. “We loved it. It was the start of a great story.”
Fast-forward and Matchbox is preparing to take its budding brand national, a crazy idea, Neal says, for a group that literally built its first concept by hand.
The tables were assembled in Mark’s basement on a rigged-up wood shop. For 15 hours a day, for 10 months, they worked to resurrect the narrow, brick structure with a caved-in roof. It cost around $500,000—about a third of what it would have sans the do-it-yourself approach.
Mark, who once worked at Domino’s, made the pizza at Matchbox’s first location, Kim bartended, and Ty—a fry cook at 15—ran the front of the house. “There’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears on the first project,” Neal recalls.
These days, Matchbox has six locations of its original concept—best known for its wood-fired pizzas, mini-burgers, and craft beer. There are also five Ted’s Bulletin Family Restaurants and one DC-3 hot dog brand.
What’s next is even more far-flung from those grind-it-out days more than a decade ago. With the addition of Peter D’Amelio, the former president and chief operating officer of The Cheesecake Factory, Neal and his partners are poised for a national takeover. The company, which Neal says hovered around $60 million in revenue last year, has six Matchboxes planned to open in the next 18 months and expects to continue that growth level for the foreseeable future.
“We’re lifers,” he says. “It’s exciting. We’re still pretty motivated about the food. We spend a lot of time in the test kitchen. So yeah, we’re still talking about the food all the time. At the end of the day, we know what matters.”
Big Dreams, Small Beginnings
Across the country, restaurant groups—like Matchbox and its start-from-scratch approach—are responsible for some of the top independent and chain options on the market.
Sometimes transparent—sometimes hidden—the strategy and background of these groups, how they grow and how they began, continue to shape the industry in a post-recession landscape.
And it’s a very, very broad spectrum.