Jonathan Downey is the owner and founder of the Match Bar Group.
Jonathan Downey’s bar empire, which includes Match bars in London, Ibiza and Melbourne, as well as Milk & Honey in London and New York, came into being almost by accident.
Downey started his career as a corporate lawyer but his decision to buy an apartment in Clerkenwell in the mid-1990s changed all that. Travelling to Manchester every other weekend to watch football games, he noticed that the Manchester bar scene had something that London lacked.
Along with two friends, he set up the first Match bar, Match EC1 (now Giant Robot) in 1997 – initially as a side project alongside his main career.
“It was a bit tricky. I was working on the bar during evenings and weekends as well as the occasional daytime,” Downey says.
But soon the side project started to muscle in on his everyday life, particularly after Match EC1 was awarded the London Evening Standard‘s Bar of the Year award in its first year. A second bar followed, but it soon became clear that Downey could not cling on to his career in law and give his new businesses the attention they needed.
“I think to put it bluntly I was taking the piss towards the end with the opening of Match Bar in the West End in 1999. I hadn’t planned to quit law – it was really well-paid, and I was really enjoying my job but I don’t think we expected [Match] to be so successful,” he explains.
Within three years, by which stage Downey had bought out his two partners, he had opened a third bar, Sosho, and had hit an annual turnover of £5m. From there the business kept on growing and now it has an annual turnover of £20m.
“The gameplan was to try and roll out the Match Bar brand. We wanted to keep opening more of them abroad and in the UK. But I got sidetracked by the opportunity to buy the Player in Soho. So we bought that and then the opportunity to buy what is now Milk and Honey popped up via a friend. So we did have some strategy but we ignored it,” he adds.
The company now plans to open a new bar/restaurant, Red Hook, in Farringdon this month, and a new East Room venue will open in Shoreditch in September to replace the one that burnt down along with Sosho earlier this year.
HIGHS… Downey’s high points are not, unlike some people, opening new venues. “It’s a bit like childbirth in that it’s a worry before the birth and then a very painful process during the birth, and then once the business is alive then that’s when the real work starts. And unlike children you don’t get much love and affection,” he says.
But experiencing those businesses as a customer is different: “I’ve had some great nights at Sosho with fantastic DJs and lovely crowds. And I have had some amazing meals on the terrace in the sunshine at the East Room. I have loved sitting marina-side in Ibiza, and I have an amazing time when I go to the Clubhouse in Chamonix. I am a real fan of my businesses,” Downey says.
LOWS… Downey’s renowned Sosho bar, private members’ club the East Room and his head office were all destroyed in a fire at the Shoreditch building that housed them in March this year.
“The fire at Sosho was a complete disaster. That was 40% of my UK turnover and more of my profit just gone in an hour,” he says.
But it is not the first obstacle the business has had to deal with. “I also had a real financial shock a few years ago when I found out that we had £2m more debt than I thought,” he adds.
But Downey’s real frustration is dealing with local authorities over licensing issues, making the bar sector what he calls the “most over-regulated industry in the UK”.
● Downey will appear at Imbibe, running from 13 to 14 July at Earls Court, where he will hold a session on the business of running a successful bar
Family 4 children
Holiday Ibiza in the summer, Chamonix in the winter
Drives Land Rover Discovery
Motto Everybody is lying to you about everything all of the time
Give value for money alternatives by offering Prosecco or a good quality sparkling wine in place of Champagne as most guests are unlikely to know the difference.