It’s not snappy, shiny or modern. The green linoleum tiles on the floor look worn, the stencilled ivy on the wallpaper dates itself, and you won’t find any quinoa or kale listed on the menu board adorning the wall above the sink.
But the tall stools that line the counter of the little restaurant inside the Matchbox Smoke & Newsstand have been, over the years, a second home for many people.
That is changing.
The Matchbox on Hudson Avenue is on the move to Centenoka Mall to the former home of Lucky’s, where owner Wes Piggott is continuing to sell lottery tickets, greeting cards, tobacco supplies and e-cigarettes.
Piggott doesn’t want to talk publicly about the move, but confirms it should be complete in the next week or so.
While 23-year-old Frances Biggs has been the chef, server and right-hand woman at the Matchbox for the past four years, the history of the store is interwoven with that of her family. Both her mom Donna and her great-aunt Pat worked for Tom Hale, the previous owner, when magazines were in their heyday and e-cigarettes were just a glimmer in an inventor’s eye. Her older sister Tiffany worked there too.
“A lot of these people have known me since birth,” Frances said of her customers last week, before taking up her duties in the store’s new location. “My mom had me when she was working here.”
Every morning before Frances would start work, she would stop by Askew’s Foods to pick up the fresh produce she’d need for the day’s cooking.
She becomes particularly animated when she speaks about the soup.
“I make the soups from scratch each day,” she said, explaining customers have been asking for her recipes since learning the store is moving.
Frances says she’s both saddened and excited by the move.
On this Friday, as most Fridays, the soups were clam chowder or tomato.
“Friday, people order grilled cheese and tomato soup. It’s an old-school combination.”
The Matchbox would see different crowds of people depending on the time of day.
Some old-school, some not.
People from surrounding businesses regularly come for lunch, while the morning crowd is a decidedly different gang. Ken Tapp, who is sitting on his usual stool facing the Keno screen, explains he’s been coming to the Matchbox since 1990, more regularly since 1997.
“I think I’ve survived at least four people who’ve passed away, and they’ve all been regulars here. I’ve ended up visiting them at Bastion, or taking them papers at home.”
Frances describes the morning crowd, of which Tapp is a part, as “rambunctious.”
Former owner Tom Hale, Tapp recounts, had his own view of the spot where Tapp and friends sit.
“He used to say that the total IQ at the table had never exceeded 142 in all the years he’d operated the place.”
Michael Ellis sits down next to Tapp. Asked why he comes to the Matchbox, Ellis quips, “Sex.” He quickly follows that up with: “Well, to look at Frances.” Then, “We come here for the good soup. Especially the soup. And we get regularly abused by the owner, Wes. Sometimes he gets brutal and Frances steps in.”
Frances, meanwhile, holding her hands over her ears by way of demonstration, says she has become very skilled at not listening to what the morning crowd has to say.
Joking aside for the moment, Tapp says a lot of people come to the restaurant at the Matchbox for the ambiance.
“It’s an old-time prairie restaurant. If someone is looking for me, they will come in at nine o’clock and be very surprised if I’m not here.”
And what will he do now?
“I’ll have to go along (to the new location). I’m writing a book and staff figure prominently in it,” he says, glancing with a grin at Frances.
“Oh, that look from Frances will kill a hamster at 30 paces,” he says. “Those are dark looks.”