"Most owners prepare for dips and lulls, but nobody prepares for a brick wall," says Justin Anthony, who owns the Matchbox with partners Lisa Vedovelli and Sudhir Kudva.
The bar at 2625 Larimer Street celebrates its ten-year anniversary this month, but Anthony notes that the fun has been subdued, because "it's not responsible to celebrate right now."
The Matchbox was built from ashes: Anthony recalls that he drove past the address with his father after a fire had gutted the building, and he knew he wanted to make something of it. His dad tried to talk him out of it, but the plan was already growing in his mind, and in 2011 it became a reality. The bar was named because of its small size and because of its origin; many of the walls are painted black — not for atmosphere, but because the smoke stains couldn't be scrubbed out, he explains.
A decade later, the Matchbox stands as a reminder of the RiNo neighborhood's rebirth as an art district in the 2000s, changing just enough to stay relevant while retaining its original soul and focus. "We still have over 80 percent of our original staff," Anthony points out. "And we've maintained our gallery space with no commission from sales. It's not fancy; there's no gimmick. The biggest challenge was remaining authentic in a neighborhood that was changing around us. We went from being the only neighborhood bar to one of thirty or forty options."
Even before the pandemic, Anthony and his partners were looking at ways of surviving in a business and neighborhood where wages and property values were going up and profit margins were going down. Property taxes doubled at the Matchbox, and at American Bonded, where Anthony is also a partner, he points out that "our property tax went from $18,000 to $39,000, and that was after we fought it and got it lowered. So we were already trending toward lean, looking at what we could do to cut and streamline."
That lean model helped the Matchbox survive the past twelve months of ups and downs, openings and closings. The bar closed entirely from November through late January rather than try to shift to an outdoor-only model in the middle of winter, and only reopened when capacity restrictions eased to 50 percent. Even so, the shortened hours and low number of guests allowed (think back to the days when RiNo bars were packed three or four people deep) have impacted the bottom line. "We've got a duty to our customers and staff, but we also want to make sure we still have a business after this is over," Anthony says. Before the pandemic, he points out, 62 percent of profit came after 10 p.m., when industry workers would get off shifts at nearby restaurants.
Even so, Anthony says, "I have never been as optimistic over the past year as I am right now." While the anniversary party won't be happening any time soon, he's looking forward to this summer, when his staff and many of his customers will be vaccinated and people will be able to gather in larger groups again. "But I don't think there's a return to normal," he adds, "because I think COVID is with us for the next decade."
How that will play out is anyone's guess; it could mean masks and gloves become the norm in food and beverage service, or the protective gear and capacity restrictions could just pop up occasionally during regional or localized COVID flareups. But Anthony and his partners at the Matchbox plan to be there no matter what.
Looking back, Anthony says that the gamble he, Vedovelli and Kudva took at the beginning, despite the warnings from Anthony's father, has been worth it. "We had this discussion about how much of this was luck and how much was our moves, and we decided it was about fifty-fifty," he admits.
We'll give the Matchbox a little more credit than that.