The entrepreneur who has played a large part in revitalizing Gay Street recently turned his attention to redeveloping the former Bristol Bar.
Jeff Mathes, managing partner of Due Amici and Barrio Tapas Restaurant, says he is transforming the space, located at 132 E. Fifth Ave., into a “neo-existential lounge with a French bohemian flair” called Bar L’étranger.
“I think Columbus, especially the downtown urban area, lacks a bar/lounge that isn’t a club,” says Mathes. “I think this fills a niche for people that don’t necessarily want to be in a dance club, but they can enjoy conversation and drinks in a more lounge-y, comfortable atmosphere.”
Given his track record, Mathes obviously has his finger on the pulse on the city’s core. However, becoming a downtown restaurateur was something he did not anticipate. In fact, he opened his first establishment −Due Amici− mainly out of necessity.
In 1995, Mathes started his own business selling mobile classroom buildings to schools; the success he achieved allowed him to purchase the three-story building at 65-69 E. Gay St. in 2003. He began renovations the following year with the intention of living on the third floor, using the second floor for tenant office space, and using the first floor for tenant retail space.
His plans for the second and third floors went off without a hitch. However, “the first floor retail never really took off because downtown at that point was still kind of high risk and there wasn’t a lot of gentrification.”
Mathes courted several restaurants, but “none of them came knocking, so I got into the restaurant business to basically pay rent,” he says.
Due Amici, which serves classic Italian dishes with a twist, did well from the outset, which encouraged Mathes to continue developing restaurant-related projects.
“I had a concept in my head for Spanish tapas and at the same time I had an opportunity through friends who had bought the former Wendy’s [building at 185 N. High St.], and we partnered in the real estate and in the restaurant,” he says.
Essentially, the owners made Mathes a partner in the real estate, so he would open Barrio (which debuted in 2008) and they would pay themselves rent.
“That’s kind of the common denominator,” he says of his business ventures.
Once Barrio was up and running, he got out of the modular building industry and began to focus on development and hospitality full time.
“I definitely think we’ve come a long way,” he says. “I remember when we opened [Due Amici], Cameron Mitchell was the big guy and we were the little guy. We were seen as the new place to be. But that took awhile and now I kind of feel like we’ve, unfortunately, been characterized in some instances as the aristocratic restaurant, which we started the total opposite of. But in a weird way, it’s a compliment and the best thing about it is all the restaurants that have come in since us are independent and small business owners, so I’m proud of that, for sure.”
“[The city] was very, very helpful from the beginning,” Mathes says. However, “there’s a few things that I think are a Catch-22. I think things have gone so well on Gay Street that the perception from the city is ‘That’s done, let’s move on to the next street.’ And it’s not.
“There’s still a few vacancies down here. There’s still been some turnover down here. It’s not time yet to take away that pro-development approach on this street. I think they should be putting in the same amount of effort they did then now until it’s fully developed. And then, I think, naturally the streets surrounding us will start to develop.”
When Mathes was working to get Due Amici off the ground, he says the Small Business Association and the Columbus Countywide Development Corporation helped him obtain a substantial amount of funding. When launching Barrio several years later, however, the economy had taken a hit and money was scarce.
“It was very tough to get bank financing,” Mathes says. “And the only reason we really did is because when I became a partner in the real estate and [the owners] became partners in the restaurant, we were able to refinance the real estate to get some of the funding we needed to do the build out. But over half the funding for that restaurant was private, where 100 percent of [Due Amici] was bank-funded.”
Though the economy has yet to recover completely, over the last five years Mathes has acquired business knowhow that will likely make the launch of Bar L’étranger less stressful. Not that expertise was all that important his first go ’round.
When asked if he sought anyone’s input when starting Due Amici, Mathes reveals that although his partner −and owner of Pastaria at the North Market− Don Ziliak “definitely had a good food background,” neither of them had managed a full-service restaurant.
“So the scary answer to that question is ‘No,’ ” he says laughingly.
To learn more about Bar L’étranger, visit BarLetranger.com.