Mixing the perfect Martini proved more alluring than a career in the law for Jonathan Downey, owner of the cutting-edge Match chain. Eleanor Levenson discovers what made him leave the City.
I think I could succeed at anything I tried,” says former City lawyer Jonathan Downey. Downey now owns the hugely successful bar chain Match.
Add to that a column in Esquire magazine and a hair and beauty salon in Clerkenwell, which he invested in to “help out a friend”, and you soon realise that Jonathan Downey is not your typical solicitor-turned-entrepreneur.
He turns up late to our interview having just got back from Ibiza, where he hired a house for six weeks and invited everyone he knew. He’s not sure whether he liked it, though. “Ibiza is good if you’re 19 and off your tits on E, or if you’re 50 and a hippy playing drums on the beach,” he says. At 35, Downey is somewhere in-between.
His mission is to bring cocktails to the masses: “I’m a really egalitarian person. Match was the first bar in London you could walk into without a door policy and buy a proper drink.
Before that you had to be a member of a club or get through a door policy.” But with drinks costing more than £6 each, one could be forgiven for thinking that Downey’s brand of consumer socialism is not a particularly inclusive one. He disagrees, saying that he doesn’ believe there are many people who could not afford a drink in his bar.
“My motto is drink less but enjoy more,” quips Downey in his bid to show that a night in Match needn’t be expensive.
One thing people often want in Match is a Martini. Match prides itself on serving the best Martinis in town, made individually to the specific order of each customer. “I don’t really drink Martini myself,” says Downey sipping his black coffee.
“But you must never shake a Martini. Ian Fleming did it to make James Bond look roguish and unconventional but for an aromatic drink like a Martini you must always stir.”
His parents “didn’t give a shit” about his education, but watching the US legal drama Petrocelli on TV made him want to go into law, so off he set in the mid-1980s to study law at Liverpool. After graduating in 1988 he did his LPC at the College of Law in Guildford and then took a training contract with Top 10 City firm, Simmons & Simmons, where he stayed until he was five-years qualified.
“It felt like I was the first northern bloke at Simmons & Simmons when I arrived. I was conscious of being part of an institution. When I started I was taken aside and given some advice. I was told, ‘Downey, you should never dip your pen in the firm’s ink’.” It should be noted that he did not take this advice – the mother of his two children works for his company.
In the 1990s, Downey specialised in restructuring and insolvency, doing lots of work on collapsed bank BCCI. He spent time in London, Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi before leaving to join US firm Weil Gotshal & Manges, which had opened a what was then a fledgling office in London. Downey says: “The biggest difference when you move to a New York law firm is that you can say ” down the phone.”
In 1987, while still a practising solicitor, Downey opened his first bar, Match EC1, in Clerkenwell. As the bar got more and more successful he quit law to concentrate on cocktails. He says he wouldn’ go back now even if it all went wrong, but there are some aspects of his former life that he does miss: “I learned a lot as a lawyer,” he says. “I miss having a fantastic secretary. I miss having access to the resources of an international law firm. And I miss the professional people. One reason we’ve managed to succeed with Match is that we have brought a degree of professionalism to an industry that doesn’t have much. But the most frustrating thing about being a lawyer is that all you have to show for your work is a pile of documents.”
To be a good lawyer you need to appeal to people, he says: “You need charisma. Clients need to be charmed, colleagues need to feel you’ a safe pair of hands. People skills are more important than legal skills.”
It’s no surprise that Match is run professionally. The company consists of two investment bankers, two architects, two lawyers and someone who works in advertising, as well as Downey.
“There are easier ways to make money than a bar,” admits Downey. “I would advise you do something else.
“I get asked all the time what’s next and the answer is anything that’s now. I mean, The Ivy is not going to go out of fashion. It’s good now and it always will be. That’s what I’m trying to do with this bar. There are easier ways to make money.” The advice he gives anyone thinking of following in his footsteps is very simple: “Put red in the bar because if you don’t then it won’t work.”
Downey himself doesn’t go to bars that much. “I wouldn’t go out to another bar for a drink,” he says. “I might go for a look. But this has taken away the pleasure.”
Yet with three new Match bars set to open in the near future, it’s safe to assume that Downey is still getting pleasure from this venture. His gamble at leaving the law has paid off. Game, set and match.