At Matchbox restaurants, lunch is big business


Customers enter Matchbox in the District’s Chinatown neighborhood. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 16, 2012

It is 10 a.m. on a late summer Wednesday, and the metabolism at the Matchbox restaurant at 7th and H Street NW in downtown Washington is accelerating to meet the impending lunch crowd.

General Manager John Wyman has been there since 7 a.m., checking the food supply, straightening picture frames, adjusting seats, herding tardy employees to the restaurant. A vacuum roars across the bar floor. As showtime nears, newspapers are placed at each of the 14 place-settings at the bar, so early-bird lunchers have something to read.

The wood-fired pizza ovens are heating to 700 degrees. Food preparers in the kitchen are warming crab soup, chopping herbs and making garlic croutons for that day’s linguine.

Big money is at stake. As it is with many restaurants, lunch plays a crucial role at Matchbox restaurants.

“Lunch is a third of our business,” said Drew Kim, one of three co-owners of Matchbox Food Group, which has four locations, including Capitol Hill, Rockville and Palm Springs, Calif. “Lunch is the thing that pays the rent and utilities.”

Each Matchbox restaurant produces a healthy profit, but co-owner Ty Neal won’t say how much. But it’s healthy enough to keep investors coming back to be part of each new restaurant partnership.

“Many of the investors are so pleased that they pony up for the next restaurant deal,” said Neal, who calls his budding chainlet “a unique collection of restaurants.”

Matchbox Food Group is expanding. Fast. At least half a dozen stores are in the works, including one opening this fall at 14th and T Street NW, and in Merrifield early next year.

Each one costs around $3 million to open, depending on the size. Matchbox funds the restaurants through bank debt, individual partner investments and contributions from developers eager to have them in their buildings.

The 7th Street location, on the lip of D.C.’s Chinatown, is at a crossroads of commerce, sport, tourism and government.

The Verizon Center, the International Spy Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are a couple minutes away. The Gallery Place Metro station, where three train lines meet, is across the street. The FBI , U.S. Mint, Drug Enforcement Agency, National Public Radio and Pepco are nearby. The National Mall is a few blocks south. The Walter E. Washington Convention Center is to the north.

“We go into neighborhoods where we have thriving lunches,” Kim said. “We knew this neighborhood was about to turn before we got here 10 years ago.” Because they were in early and took a chance on an evolving neighborhood, Matchbox’s owners got a real estate lease that is about a third of what others are now paying. That has helped the profit at the Chinatown location.

Around 7,000 customers a week eat at Matchbox Chinatown, with average checks running over $20 for lunch and $35 for dinner. About 2,000 of those are lunchtime customers, between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Matchbox’s business model occupies the middle of the lunch market, somewhere between the fast-food places such as Five Guys and the fine-dining powerhouses such as The Palm and BLT. Fast food relies on massive volume, while fine-dining establishments rely on expense account checks and ample alcohol consumption.

Typical Matchbox lunches last about 45 minutes, allowing for tables to be used at least twice and sometimes three times during the lunch hour. There’s no rush. Customers can sit and munch on a pizza and nurse an iced tea all afternoon, but most don’t.

So Wyman and his team follow Matchbox’s rigorous science of careful preparation and execution.

Wyman knows he needs three hosts or greeters, nine lunch servers, three “bussers,” a food runner and one assistant manager to serve the 80-some tables when the expected crowd of 400 to 500 arrives between 11 and 1:30, or so. That means each of its 240 seats will serve two lunches. In restaurant parlance, that means “turning” or “flipping” each table twice, a common industry metric.

“The reason we get there at 7 in the morning is because we are setting the tone for the day,” Wyman said. “We are regimented.”

The computers create efficiencies that would awe McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. Computers screens from the front door of the restaurant to the rear kitchen track every table and every order, right down to how long the customer has been sitting at a certain table to exactly where their mini-burgers are located in the food line.

“We make the numbers work,” said Kim, who can measure gross profits per seat.

The chef’s color-coded computer screens follow multiple food orders wending their way through the kitchen. Yellow means an order is 12-minutes old, which is pushing the limit on when a main course should be delivered. Drinks should arrive at a table in three to four minutes, appetizers in six. Tables are cleared and readied for the next seating in under five minutes.

The big push runs from noon until 1:30. But one of the big advantages of the downtown location is the constant pedestrian traffic. Between 3 and 5, tourists stroll in from the Mall or Spy Museum for a later afternoon dinner. There’s also the pre-game crowd when the NHL Capitals or NBA Wizards are playing at the Verizon Center.

One key measure of success is the balance between space for seats (70 percent) and that for kitchen, storage and administration (30). The Chinatown Matchbox — a rabbit warren of rooms, stairways and landings cobbled from three properties — is around 65 percent seats to 35 percent kitchen.

Matchbox doesn’t have much control over rent and utilities, which are fixed costs. That leaves food, liquor and labor where it can manage and squeeze out profits. Liquor is a big one. A bottle of wine at Matchbox costs the company about one third of what it will bring in at the bar, which is below the industry average and pretty fair by D.C. standards. So a $9 glass of zinfandel might come close to covering Matchbox’s cost for most of the entire bottle, leaving the rest as profit. But don’t get too jealous. Overhead such as rent, insurance, utilities and a million other costs must be paid out of that “profit.”

The company also works hard at reducing food costs by watching spoilage, checking supplies relentlessly so food doesn’t sit on shelves or in a refrigerator. The just-in-time food supplies require relentless attention to detail, but contributes to profits.

Then there’s labor. Matchbox Food Group employs about 800 servers, managers and kitchen staff with the same efficiencies it uses on its food production. Staffing is carefully charted so that the restaurant staffs up for the rush hours and slims down for the quiet periods.

“We know every shift, who runs into overtime, and we try not to hit overtime,” Kim said.

Servers make $2.77 per hour, all of which goes to pay the taxes on their tips. But if they hustle, they can make more than $50,000 a year. They gather every morning at 10:30 around upstairs tables for a 10-minute briefing from head chef Jacob Hunter, who delivers a sample plate holding that day’s specials (today it’s fish tacos). He explains the meal, and servers recite the description back to him, as if they are auditioning for a play.

The show kicks off shortly after 11 when the first customers meander in. Cooks, servers, bus boys and managers snap into action in the kitchen, bar, pizza galley and at the host station.

By a quarter past noon on this September Wednesday, the line is out the door and parties of office workers are lined up against the brick wall in the bar area, watching ESPN and CNN on the three flatscreens above while waiting to take their seats. Matchbox limits reservations to only 20 percent of its tables to encourage walk-ins.

Behind the bar, Kat Green, a 25-year-old Catholic University graduate, tends to 14 mostly male regulars who are seated around the bar. Plates of fish tacos and the signature mini-burgers fly by. Mustafa Humphreys mans the takeout stand.

At the host station by the door, Christie McGuinness keeps watch on the 60 or so tables, staring at the timers for each location, anticipating which ones will open, which ones are occupied and for how long. “I can tell how close they are to finishing,” she said. Table 31 has been there 53 minutes. Table 81 has been there 57 minutes. Both are getting close to leaving.

In the second-floor pizza kitchen toward the back, pizza chef Bart Nadherny oversees a small army, including two chefs pounding dough into flat pizzas, three toppers sprinkling on pepperoni, olives or onions, an oven guy shoveling pies in and out, and a floater filling gaps to help deliver the 300 pies that flow through the oven at 4 minutes each. Those pizzas, at $13 to $23, depending on size and toppings, are one of the mainstays of the Matchbox lunch business.

“Once the building is full, it takes on a life of its own,” said Wyman.

There is an ebb and a flow to the restaurant. Early in the week is slow. Fridays sell more alcohol. August and January are the weakest months. Tuesdays following Monday holidays are dead.

But today’s bar is alive. Joe Nied, who works in an office about six blocks away and eats at the bar once a week, is finishing his shrimp pizza. His usual bill is around $15, and Nied keeps coming back at least once a week.

“I usually have the pizza or salad,” he said. “I have been coming at least five years. The food is good, the prices are good. It’s a nice atmosphere and I can leave work and get back in less than an hour.”

A couple of seconds after he departs, the next customer slides onto his bar stool, and the cycle starts again.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade.
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