Eat. Drink. Share. Gather.
Inside the resurgence of the Matchbox restaurant brand
It started with an old vacant building in the heart of the nation’s capital. Thatis where the heart and soulof the Matchbox brand wasconceived. The premise wassimple: to create a high energyatmosphere that could providethe best in food and drinks.Make it a place where peoplewanted to be together.
In July 2003, Matchbox opened its first location and quickly became known for wood-fired pizzas, mini burgers, fresh salads and chef-inspired entrées like pan-seared sea bass and oven-roasted filet mignon. Elevated American bistro fare is what Matchbox called its style. It did not take long for people to notice. At the end of that first year, it was named Washington, D.C.’s "Best New Restaurant” by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW).
And the beat, as they say, goes on. Today, powered by a recent investment by Thomas Hospitality Corp., the Matchbox brand is growing. The investment provided Matchbox the necessary resources to grow. The expansion is taking stock in D.C., Florida and Dallas, featuring 5,000- to 6,000-square foot restaurants.
Commercial Construction & Renovation sat down with Senior VP of Operations Fred Herrmann to get his insights on where the Matchbox Food Group is heading.
Give us a snapshot of the Matchbox brand?
Since opening our first location in 2003, Matchbox has been a quintessential neighborhood gathering place for communities throughout Washington, D.C., Maryland and northern Virginia. We now have more than a dozen locations in the Mid-Atlantic region,
as well as Dallas and Sunrise, Florida, with more on the way in the coming year.
As we continue to grow, the brand consistently offers a fun, familiar, dining experience with an inviting, energetic vibe and a diverse menu to please any crowd. Centered around fresh, premium ingredients, our menu features staples like wood-fired pizzas and signature mini burgers, along with simple, yet refined main courses. All dishes can be paired with a selection from a full bar of specialty cocktails, local beers and an approachable, yet eclectic, wine list.
What type of consumer are you targeting?
Matchbox is truly a "come as you are" brand, and our guests reflect that. We offer a menu and experience that feels comfortable and welcoming to everyone. We set a higher standard for casual dining for all to enjoy. The founders and I used to quip that you’d feel as comfortable in a suit as in a pair of shorts at Matchbox. I saw that daily when working the dining room—it was common to see a high-ranking politico sitting next to a family of four in town for their summer vacation.
How does the design of Matchbox cater to what today's consumers are looking for?
While all Matchbox locations are designed to fit within and add to the communities they are part of, there are similarities that all of the restaurants share. Namely, a casual, homey environment that typically includes a warm color palette, exposed brick and reclaimed wood, and other design elements that mix both vintage and industrial finds and finishes.
The restaurants also offer a front-row seat to the centerpiece pizza ovens through a pizza bar where guests can sit and watch the chefs in action. Our newer locations and those in the works mark a shift toward smaller overall spaces with larger bar areas and greater availability for group and family dining, which echoes what we're hearing from guests as important parts of the dining experience. People want restaurants to feel more intimate, but also easily accommodate large groups and offer a buzzy bar scene, and we are deliberately capturing that in our more recently opened restaurants. We
Today’s consumers are looking for convenience and quality when they enter a restaurant. We aim to give each guest a personalized experience when they enter our restaurant.
are also looking toward enhanced takeout spaces as something guests are looking for.
What is your growth plan? What areas are you targeting?
We are currently focused on growth within D.C., Maryland, and northern Virginia, and bringing Matchbox locations to new neighborhoods in the region that have embraced the brand for more than 15 years. We are opening in Bethesda, Maryland later this summer, northwest D.C. in the winter, and in Reston, Virginia in the early spring of 2020. We're also actively looking at other spaces and developments in the area.
Tell us what makes the Matchbox brand so unique?
Our position as a dining industry veteran of more than 15 years speaks to its importance as a brand. We have always made decisions
from the place of being a good neighbor with dependable dining options for guests from all walks of life. Another key part of the Matchbox brand is bettering its surrounding communities by regularly bringing on charity partners to support the causes they champion.
We were founded around pizza, but with our culinary team, we’ve become much more.
Every quarter, we hold a fun, interactive features competition, and all Matchbox team members are invited to participate. Chefs, cooks, bartenders, servers and more work for weeks to create a unique dish or drink and then present it to our executive team on competition day. If the items are hits with our guests, they could make it onto our menu long-term. Our guests are the ultimate judging panel, after all.
Matchbox is truly a “come as you are” brand, and our guests reflect that.
Is there a location that really shows how the brand interacts with the community and customers? One of your favorites?
I really like Matchbox Silver Spring , which we opened on April. I consider it the model moving forward. It has the right size and sales balance, and is easy to operate. Restaurant builds that allow the managers and employees to see the entire dining room make it much more efficient. For example, we are able to anticipate guests departing and get other guests seated faster. The room feels good—it’s not too loud or too quiet. The elevated bar area has just enough separation from the dining room, but still allows the energy to flow throughout the space. We also started using a muralist to fill some of the wall space. At Silver Spring, there is a mural of a vintage Matchbox that incorporates the gazebo at Acorn Park, a neighborhood landmark. We liked it so much that we decided to add this element to all of our locations. Matchbox Penn Quarter, which is located downtown near the stadium, has a mural that gives a nod to the championships won by the Bullets and Capitals. I am a big fan of recognizing history and tradition in the décor.
Walk us through how and why it designed the way it is?
Comfortable dining areas featuring wood tabletops, leather banquettes and raised booths, as well as a spacious bar area and flexible seating for large groups further
emphasize the welcoming, energetic atmosphere that Matchbox is known to cultivate at each restaurant. Anchoring the design is a pizza oven that catches the eye from any seat in the house as it fires up signature thin-crust pizzas within minutes. The design is open and welcoming with room to gather for groups of all sizes.
Take us through your construction and design strategy.
I like conversions for the obvious reason, as it lowers the buildout costs. There is an art to walking the fine line between what is existing and adding enough to “make it a Matchbox.” It has to feel significantly different from what was there before—it’s a new restaurant and concept, after all.
At Matchbox Silver Spring, changing the physical location of the bar was cost prohibitive. Instead we ripped out overhanging roof, changed the shelving and lighting at the backbar, and we opened up the space to create the modern, clean look Matchbox is known for. With conversions, we strike the balance between cost-savings and making the space noticeably different. I want people to be wowed when they enter a Matchbox for the first time, not say, “Oh they just changed the paint and furniture.”
Restaurants have evolved into not only a place to share a meal with the person across the table, but as a place where you share your meal with thousands of other people on the internet.
On the other hand, new buildouts are restricted to the floorplan that you are given. We go and look at sites we think are going to do well—it could be a funky building layout wise, for example. Now it’s a case of looking at operation space, seats, the lease, the layout. We ask, “Is the kitchen too big? Too small?” or “Where will the pizza oven go?” There is a balance between authenticating the brand and actually operating.
What's the biggest issue today related to the construction side of the business?
Timing. In the restaurant business, you have to begin hiring and training roughly two months prior to your projected opening date. Pushing a projected opening date costs serious money in labor and lost sales, not to mention the effect on company morale.
Construction delays hurt operators. Think unforeseen lead times on FF&E, red tape, permitting delays, etc. No date has more instability than the opening date of a restaurant. You might as well write it with a dry erase marker.
Are you optimistic about what you see today in the marketplace?
Full-service dining definitely has its challenges ahead. There is a large shift toward third-party delivery and more people are eating at home. Anyone can tell you that’s bad for bar sales and also increases the G&A expenses of the restaurant.
I do, however, feel like there will always be full-service dining. The question is at what level of service. At the end of the day, those who deliver good food and good hospitality will be successful. And technology is key.
What trends are you seeing?
Restaurants have evolved into not only a place to share a meal with the person across the table, but as a place where you share your meal with thousands of other people on the internet. Creating visually appealing restaurants with food that not only excites the taste buds, as well as the eye is critical to creating a forward-thinking sustainable restaurant.
What is the secret to creating a “must visit” restaurant environment in today’s competitive landscape?
Our employees are our brand. We hire people who will consistently contribute to their restaurant and to the organization as a whole. Those who share our values and are a true reflection of the Matchbox culture and identity. Who will respect, protect and uphold our brand.
Our secret sauce is hiring well. More specifically, hiring character. The industry is so strapped for labor that you can almost get hired at any restaurant. As anyone who has worked in the industry knows, hiring is a non-stop process. We're not in the restaurant industry, we're in the hospitality business. That's why I always tell our operators, don’t worry about experience, worry about character. Someone with character can always create a pleasant atmosphere— that stuff you just can’t teach. Hospitality is a character trait—anyone can memorize the number of shrimp in a dish.
We call ourselves a performance family, and it’s that family that has our guests coming back.
What is today's consumer looking for?
Speed. Convenience. Customization.
Today's consumers are looking for convenience and quality when they enter a restaurant. We aim to give each guest a personalized experience when they enter our restaurant. The focus we have decided on is fresh menu items that come from sustainable backgrounds, seasonal feature products that reinforce repeat visits, and a comfortable atmosphere to relax in
Describe a typical day
There really isn’t anything typical about my day. CK
» Fred Herrmann
Senior VP of Operations, Matchbox Food Group
What’s the most rewarding part of your job? No doubt it’s all the times I’ve helped my team members grow. People are a commodity, and I’ve had the opportunity to coach so many. You get to tap them on the shoulder and say, “Hey, what’s your five-year plan? I want you to manage.” Leading people and creating esprit de corps in the business—that’s when I’m happiest. Really breaking through the barrier of employees being in the moment and not realizing how far they can go—I didn’t do anything for them but open the door.
What was the best advice you ever received? Never worry about who gets credit.
What’s the best thing a client ever said to you? I like it when I get asked if I own the company, because it shows me I’m demonstrating the right persona in the dining room.
Name the three strongest traits any leader should have and why. Authenticity. Don’t BS people and don’t mince words. No one will ever develop under you unless you are completely honest about what they need to work on.
Smart people want to know the truth. In line with that, be humble.
Have fun. The day that you stop having fun at work is the day you have to quit. It doesn’t mean that every day has to be crazy fun, but you have to be emotionally connected and engaged.
Lastly, discipline. Discipline provides the basic blocking and tackling for operations, you have discipline within your organization, then you have a healthy environment and you easily nail the basics. Discipline provides us with more of our most precious commodity —time. In that earned extra time, we can engage our people more, be collaborative, creative and hopefully, have some fun. But you have to nail the basics first.
How do you like to spend your down time? There isn’t anything I enjoy more than being with my family. Cooking dinner for my wife and 12 year old son, sitting down with DeeDee [Herrmann] over a glass of wine and talking about the day with them both is the perfect night for me. Aside from that, I am very proud of a Boston Whaler project that I’ve almost completed, which I’ve been using to bag some decent flounder off of the coast of Virginia.