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.