The Match Game: Will restaurants continue to give away free matches?


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Will restaurant matchbooks become obsolete?
  • Will restaurant matchbooks become obsolete?

That's right, boys and girls: Once upon a time, men and women were allowed to smoke in restaurants and bars. They smoked with such unhealthy abandon, in fact, that restaurants put their names and logos on attractive glass ashtrays and put them on every table in the dining room (where they were frequently stolen). They gave away free matches, too!

Some restaurants still do. Matchbooks -- imprinted with a restaurant's name, address and phone number -- have long been considered an inexpensive but effective marketing tool. After all, even nonsmokers use matches to light household items like candles, pilot lights, barbecue grills, incense, bongs and dynamite.

Earlier this year, I bought a plastic bag filled with old matchbooks at a garage sale in midtown. This cache wasn't just a bunch of old matches, but a collection of cherished memories representing good meals, vacations, weddings and business appointments.

In the business category there are matchbooks personalized for Kansas City Life Insurance, The Bulletin Personnel Service, and Vander Kolk Interiors of Kansas City. The vacation collection is represented by a tasteful matchbook from "Monticello, Home of Thomas Jefferson," a colorful relic of the Schimmel Inn of Wichita -- it's an office building now -- and the Queen City Motel in Independence. Two embossed matchbooks were giveaways at Cindy and Steve's nuptials from June 19, 1982, and Carol and Pat's knot-tying on June 27, 1980. I wonder if both couples are still married?

But the matches from long-defunct restaurants interested me the most: The Four Winds (the once-popular dining spot in the old downtown airport), Putsch's 210, and Connie's Restaurant at 12th and McGee (where I once smoked a cigarette myself, back in the 1980s).

A narrow cardboard box, mailed to Kenton Hancock of Leawood  (using an 8-cent stamp) was filled with matchbooks from The Golden Ox Restaurant, the iconic steakhouse in the West Bottoms. And no ordinary matchbooks, no. These are Golden Ox matchbooks embossed with Mr. Hancock's name. He was clearly a valued customer.

But these matches are now a collectors item: The Golden Ox not only doesn't emboss matches for its favored customers any longer, it doesn't give free matches to anyone.

"We stopped re-ordering matches after the smoking ban went into effect a couple of years ago," said Mike Holland, a Golden Ox manager. "There was no reason to keep spending money on what was, essentially, a souvenir. And they're not that cheap. It was just an added expense we didn't need any more."

Joe Wilcox, the general manager of Jack Gage American Tavern, said his restaurant has never given out matches since it opened after the smoking ban. But when he attended the annual National Restaurant Show in Chicago this year, he saw new innovations on an old theme. "There was a guy selling matchbooks that had notebook paper in it instead of matches."

If you can't smoke, write a note. Or a novel.


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