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This Restaurant Spends Over $60,000 A Year On Matchbooks For The Sweetest Reason

Delish logo Delish 2/12/2019 Sarah Weinberg
a bunch of different items: A brief look into how restaurant matchbook design became so hot-and what restaurants today are doing to keep the trend alive. Then, we find the coolest matchbook in every state. © STUART TYSON A brief look into how restaurant matchbook design became so hot-and what restaurants today are doing to keep the trend alive. Then, we find the coolest matchbook in every state.

Bill Kozlack spends $60,000 every year on something some might consider wasteful. For every single customer who walks through the doors of Jax Café, the Minneapolis steakhouse his family’s been running for three generations, his team custom-engraves a classic matchbook. They're simple-plain white or black with gold block lettering-and they're each embossed by hand. It's bananas.

a close up of a piece of paper: The Reignited Obsession With Restaurant Matchbooks © Stuart Tyson The Reignited Obsession With Restaurant Matchbooks

The restaurant's been doing this for 60-plus-years. "I bet we've gone through 50 different embossers," Kozlack says. The role of manning the tiny machine-which is about the size of a waffle iron and has more than earned its place in Jax's coat room-is coveted; only three women in history have stamped out the majority of these matches. They start every morning, stamping the names under which people have made reservations or phrases to commemorate special occasions, up to two lines at a time. Kozlack says, "I've seen just about everything: Brad and Susie and baby make three, the address of someone's new house, Will you marry me?"

There was one point in time when the restaurant’s kitschy match practice was in danger. “When the city of Minneapolis banned smoking-and along with that, ash trays and matchbooks-in the ‘90s, I actually had to write a letter to the local councilman,” Kozlack laughs. “I had to explain to him that it’s one of the longstanding traditions in restaurants and bars-and I informed him that no matter how hard you try, you can’t smoke a matchbook.” He won the battle.

Apparently you can’t smoke ‘em out, either.

Some might have assumed that restaurant matchbooks burned out with smoking sections, but restaurants are still making them-and they're not going unnoticed. In the mid-1900's, the purpose of being handed a matchbook with your dinner bill was two-fold: It was an advertising play and a tool for your post-meal cigarette. The former is still true, but matchbooks now serve more as decoration-and people are obsessed with showing off their collections.

The official hobby of collecting matchbooks is called phillumeny, a combination of the Greek phil (loving) and Latin lumen (light), and it's alive and well on Instagram. The hashtag #phillumeny has 15,670 posts; #phillumenist has 12,755.

There are even entire accounts dedicated just to the art of matchbook design. Photographer Charles Ryan Clark, or @matchbookdiaries as he’s known on Instagram, posted his first photo on November 8, 2014: a picture of the neon pink and green matchbook from the legendary Manhattan joint The Spotted Pig. Four years later, he’s posted 201 matchbooks and garnered 46.2 thousand followers. 

“Everyone always gets business cards-why don’t you drop those and put your money into matches?”

“I’ve been in the business for more than 35 years,” Joseph Dannon says. Joseph founded The Match Group in 2005. Before that, he worked at Universal Match-“the Cadillac of matchbook companies in the ‘80s”-and Maryland Match. “I’ve got Sulphur coursing through my veins.”

The Match Group’s got an impressive Instagram presence, too, with 859 and counting posts of the designs Dannon has worked on. Over the last three decades, he estimates he’s helped produce tens of thousands of matchbooks, many of them for restaurants and bars. Just don’t ask him to choose a favorite: “Oh, I couldn’t possibly."

These days, it’s not a given that restaurateurs will see a matchbook’s worth without a little divine intervention. “It’s an advertising expense,” Dannon explains. “Everyone always gets business cards, but I say, why don’t you drop those and put your money into matches?”

A classic matchbook from The Match Group-something black or white with basic text-costs about 10-cents. And though restaurants give them out for free, they get about 20 impressions from each one, one for every match that’s struck. “That’s 20 matchsticks, each helping profit,” Joe DeGennaro agrees. He’s the president of the Empire Matchcover Club, a New York City-based club for collectors.

“Some people get cocky about the fact that their food speaks for itself or that people know to go to their restaurant by word of mouth. But Danny Meyers still buys matches, and I don’t think anybody has a problem understanding his business model,” Dannon says.

Jax Café wasn’t the only restaurant that experienced the hit of the anti-smoking laws that cropped up in the ‘80s and continued to get passed throughout the ‘90s. Aspen, CO, became the first city in the United States to restrict smoking in restaurants in 1985. California was the first to enact a statewide ban in bars and public places in 1998. In some states-like Michigan, New Hampshire, and West Virginia-the laws are so strict, restaurants have shied away from handing out matchbooks altogether.

a stack of flyers on a table: The Reignited Obsession With Restaurant Matchbooks © . The Reignited Obsession With Restaurant Matchbooks

Because they don’t serve as practical a purpose any more-save for lighting candles-matchbooks have to look good. A year and a half ago, Brian Canlis launched a matchbook program for his family’s 68-year-old Seattle fine-dining restaurant, Canlis. Every four to six months, the spot releases a new matchbook that tells a piece of Canlis’s history. The sixth of the series launches soon (it was designed by local artist Jordan Kay and brought to life by Wagner Match) and serves as a tribute to the original dining room staff-Japanese women who were coming to America for the first time. The peonies (which symbolize bravery) and the crane (which symbolizes good fortune and longevity) are colorful and outlined in gold, both luxuries that were expected of vintage matchbooks but are rarer to see today.

“Restaurants are asking for those special colors, and I’m getting more requests for feature matches,” Dannon explains. The latter is a vestige of the ‘40s, made famous by The Lion Match Company, and has art on the covers in addition to designs printed on every matchstick. They’re expensive to make, which is why vintage ones sell on eBay for nearly $200 a piece.

Dannon takes credit for reintroducing feature matches to the market. He helped produce a design created by Garden & Gun Club in Atlanta, GA: a chic, evergreen cover that holds white matches printed with black and white sketches of birds. Nashville’s House of Cards (a dinner-and-a-magic show hot spot) commissioned Dannon and The Match Group to create its feature matches, too. “They’re looking to be different-to set themselves apart,” he explains.

True hobbyists like DeGenarro-who previously served as president of the national Rathkamp Matchcover Society-remove all the matches, press the books flat, and store them in binders in plastic sleeves. They're easier to thumb through, to see what can be traded or sold or bought. But as the trend shifts and people take matchbooks to be seen now-not sold later-the art of displaying the matchbooks has become just as important as the designs that are on them. "People keep them in jars on their coffee tables," DeGenarro says. "I used to pick matchbooks up on the road, then bring them back and store them in a big brandy snifter."

At Postino in Scottsdale, AZ, an entire wall is filled with matchbooks, stacked together like bricks. You can buy matchbook wallpaper from Chasing Paper to copy the look without the effort. And Charles Ryan Clark-aka @matchbookdiaries-sells prints of all those matchbook photos he posts on Instagram. They go for $165 each.

Each display (the art installations, the bowls, the prints) is a way of remembering a celebration, a favorite restaurant, or a new city. "Matches, I always tell people, help tell history," DeGenarro says. He's probably referring to history in a more general sense-but who's to say a personal collection can't tell your own, too?

Images by Stuart Tyson | Design by Alexandra Folino

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