Matchbox owners launching hot dog house DC-3 in Barracks Row
By the time their new hot dog joint, DC-3, opens on Capitol Hill next week, the owners behind casual dining spots Matchbox and Ted's Bulletin will have launched three restaurants in three years. That's not counting the two locations in the pipeline and the ongoing hunt for additional sites -- all in the midst of a recession.
DC-3 will join pizzeria bistro Matchbox and Ted's Bulletin, an upscale diner concept, in the Barracks Row section of Capitol Hill. Going against the grain of the District's burger craze, the 20-seat dog house will feature regional creations, such as a Cincinnati chili dog, according to Ty Neal, who co-owns the group of restaurants along with Mark Neal, Drew Kim and Perry Smith.
The debut of DC-3 comes five months after the opening of the 80-seat Ted's Bulletin. While Neal and his partners were putting the finishing touches on that eatery, the quartet started work on another Matchbox location on Rockville Pike, slated for completion this December. The group also signed on to bring the pizzeria bistro to Edens & Avant's Mosaic District, a lifestyle development in Merrifield, in 2012.
Neal said his partners would like one more Matchbox location in the District and one or two more sites for Ted's in the metropolitan area. The team is currently scouring the market with the help of brokerage firm Papadopolous Properties. "There are a lot of guys that have a site or two and say they are looking [for more locations], but these guys have a schedule," said broker Tom Papadopolous.
That schedule has stayed on track thanks to strong sales and customer counts. Neal declined to offer exact figures, but said revenue at the restaurants has incrementally increased on a quarterly basis. He credits the success to "having the right price point" and being in what is "arguably the strongest market in the country." Dishes at Matchbox and Ted's go for $12 to $24, while the gourmet dogs at DC-3 will cost about $6 with a side order.
"People don't have the money to spend on high-end restaurants but don't want to give up eating out," said Jay Treadwell, a restaurant consultant with Optimum Hospitality Services. Casual dining restaurants, he added, are benefiting from a general desire to maintain a leisurely lifestyle at a cheaper price point.
Segments on the lower end of the restaurant pricing scale have generally fared better in the downturn. Nationwide, the full-service casual dining niche recorded $168 billion in sales in 2009, a nominal decline of 6 percent from the prior year, according to Technomic, a research and consulting firm. Meanwhile, sales at the top 100 fast-casual chains reached $17.5 billion in 2009, a 4.5 percent increase over 2008.
There are not too many local restaurateurs opening eateries at the pace of the Matchbox group, but there are quite a few casual dining spots coming into the Washington area. Before turning their focus to the fast-casual end of the restaurant spectrum, the owners of the Greek eatery Cava, for instance, will open a third full-service restaurant in Clarendon. And a slew of Big Apple players, including Hill Country and BLT Burger, are setting up shop in the District.
"There are a lot of professionals and government workers that keep the check average, the amount a person spends on dining out, high" in the Washington area, Treadwell said. "And people are more interested in investing in an area where they see it as more resilient to economic ups and downs."
Ty Neal, his brother and two childhood friends zeroed in on Chinatown for their first Matchbox location in 2003. The team, all bus boys or waiters in a former life, had previously run a saloon-style eatery, Mycroft's, on the campus of Marshall University in their home town of Huntington, W.Va., in the 1990s. After the school took over the site and turned it into a parking lot, the crew headed to D.C. The inaugural restaurant still draws the most foot traffic, but Neal says the offspring in trendy Barracks Row are starting to rival that patronage.