The Matador – a restaurant known for its Mexican cuisine and extensive tequila bar – has been offering its customers a unique experience and quality food ever since its inception. From its beautiful works of art to its décor and atmosphere, its owners have put their passion to work, and their hearts into creating this one-of-a-kind establishment.
The Matador was established in 2004 by co-owners Zak Melang and Nate Opper. “We both came from the restaurant business. I was a bartender and restaurant manager, and so was he. And we were both very fond of Mexico and tequila,” says Zak. “We have over 150 different types of tequilas. It’s a big part of our image.”
From day one, The Matador has been a hit. “When we opened, it just went gangbusters,” says Zak. “It went really well and we were able to grow off that. We opened a second restaurant the following year, also to great success.”
Because of the laws in Washington with regards to restaurant design, and the manner in which the first Matador was laid out, underage people were not allowed in. “We didn’t purposely become a 21 and older establishment; we did it out of necessity and we found that there was a huge market for that,” says Zak. “So most of our restaurants are 21 and over. However, it’s all ages in the states where underage people are allowed in the bar area. Our restaurants do about 50/50 alcohol to food ratio,” he explains.
As to the décor, “Art was always something I did, in high school and college, and that really worked out for The Matador because I transitioned right into woodworking,” says Zak. “My team and I build everything for our restaurants. We design and build all the tables and bars ourselves. This gives us a really unique look – one that would be difficult for anyone to copy.”
Indeed, everything in The Matador has been built by hand. “Anybody can sell 150 types of tequilas and anybody can come up with their own Mexican menu,” says Zak. “But we put a lot of time and effort into the quality of what we do. That goes from the food we make, all the way to the design of our restaurant. When I get to create and design our restaurants, it’s like an art project for me,” says Zak. “I can spend 50 to 100 hours building one table.”
Another draw for customers is The Matador’s impressive portion sizes and food quality. “People are often surprised when they find out that we do everything from scratch,” says Zak. “But Nate Opper, my partner, has such a passion for food. He created the menu. We make everything from scratch, daily – from our salsas to our marinades, and our food is excellent. There are plenty of Mexican restaurants out there, there are plenty of tequila bars, but ours is unique,” says Zak. “We’re always packed. The Matador is very comfortable and it’s a place where people want to hang out.”
Another fun item on The Matador’s crowd-pleasing menu is happy hour! “We often win the best happy hour because we do have a great ‘food’ happy hour menu that goes from 4pm to 6pm, and then again from 10pm to 1am,” says Zak. “That has been a huge success for us.”
The vision for the Matador’s brand fell into place rather organically. “We knew when we started that we wanted to be a Mexican restaurant, that we wanted to have a huge tequila collection and that we wanted to do great food,” says Zak. “We had a good idea of what we wanted the restaurant to look like, but there were a lot of happy accidents.”
One of those happy accidents is the reason why most of The Matador restaurants now have a fireplace. “We just happened to put a fireplace in the center of our first restaurant, and now it’s become one of our staples,” says Zak. Each location also boasts a 35 foot bar. “The bar has a curved shape because we want everybody to be able to talk to each other.”
To be sure, multiple factors contribute to the brand’s distinctiveness. “There’s a real rustic feeling inside The Matador,” says Zak. “We use reclaimed wood; we designed our own wallpaper which is really cool and unique to us; we have an incredible metal artist who does our metal art; and we have approximately 200 candles in each of our restaurants that burn every night, creating an incredibly warm environment. When you walk into The Matador, you’ll definitely know you’re in a Matador,” says Zak. “Every one of them is different, but you can tell that they’re all related.”
Another happy accident is in how The Matador restaurants are primarily situated in historical buildings, even though that wasn’t what the owners initially set out to do. “We fell into it,” says Zak. “Our very first restaurant was a historical building and it just seemed to really work well with what we did inside. Not all of our restaurants are historic; we’ve tried doing new construction buildings, but realized that historic buildings really work for us. So, that’s what we’re going to do in the future as we continue to grow. There’s a lot of soul in The Matador, so we like to have neighborhoods that feel like they have soul, and historic neighborhoods really resonate with our concept.”
The Matador’s number one focus is people – its customers and staff. “We understand that the most important thing in this whole business is that it’s all about the people – not just the customers, but the people that work for us too. That’s huge. We put a lot of effort into hiring the best people, and we go the extra mile to train our employees,” says Zak.
“Every year, I take a large group of employees to Mexico to experience it, to tour distilleries, and to talk to people in the tequila business,” says Zak. “We constantly train our employees to be tequila aficionados; we’re really proud of the knowledge we have of tequila. And we have tequila dinners every month where we try to share this knowledge with our customers who are interested. That’s something that our guests and our people really appreciate.”
The two most important qualities that The Matador looks for in its employees is their enthusiasm for the job and their performance. “I have a huge passion for this business,” says Zak, “so I try to find people with the same passion to work for us – those who love the industry and like to be with people. It’s a tough job; not everyone is meant to be in this kind of environment, especially in restaurants as busy as ours.”
Because of The Matador’s fast pace, employee performance is paramount. “When you have a restaurant that’s doing $17,000 in a day, in less than 4,000 square feet, with nothing on the menu over $20, that’s really busy,” says Zak. “So, being able to put that high quality food out, in short ticket times, is important. It takes a special individual to be able to handle this kind of business. We’ve been fortunate with the people that we’ve hired over the years; we’ve moved people up to the position of managers and regional managers, and we’ve created a great family. So, when we discover people that have a real passion for the business, like we do, we try to retain them.”
An advantage for The Matador is how its co-owners both have ample firsthand experience in the restaurant industry and how they’re able to bring that knowledge to their business in order to make it that much more efficient. “Both me and my partner have worked in really busy restaurants in the past,” shares Zak. “We’re good at it. We understand how it works and what must be done. We’ve been in business for 13 years now, we have 14 restaurants and it’s just my partner and I. We’re a 50/50 group,” says Zak.
As The Matador continues to be the place where guests can go to relax, unwind, eat great food and have fun, its owners also look forward to expanding and introducing this unique brand to new customers, in new locations. “We’re super proud of the brand that we’ve created, we’re passionate about what we do, and we want to share that,” says Zak.