Matt Bell is a car guy and a startup guy, and now he’s combining those two passions to create a unique business that should have car lovers racing to Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood this spring.
A University of Washington graduate and longtime tech executive, Bell is turning a 36,500-square-foot warehouse into a dream space for car and motorcycle nuts called The Shop. Along for the ride will be chef Ethan Stowell, the successful Seattle restauranteur who will open Derby, his 16th establishment, inside Bell’s creation.
The Shop is billed as a “country club for gearheads,” with indoor vehicle storage, repair bays, car and motorcycle repair experts on demand, how-to classes, valet service, meeting rooms, lounge spaces, indoor detailing facilities and more.
While access to many aspects of the business will be reserved for those who pay a $150 monthly membership fee, the restaurant and bar will be open to the public.
“I’ve been a car and motorcycle enthusiast my entire life, and I’ve always wanted something like this,” Bell said. “I’ve always been the hands-on kind of guy who likes to fix and build things. It probably equates to my startup background — I like building something, I like having a major impact.”
At 44 years old, Bell said he has been in technology ever since he graduated from UW and most of that has been at startups, with the exception of a stint at RealNetworks as the general manager of sales from 2005-07. He also ran sales at a series of companies that were fronted by Madrona Venture Group and Ignition Partners, including startups such as SourceLabs, Azaleos and Skytap.
“My last day officially as the CEO of a software company was yesterday,” Bell told GeekWire on Wednesday about wrapping up his career at a small company called Modern Systems. “I just decided instead of working on the next thing, I would do something where I’m following my passion, and I’m building it around this business. I tried to talk myself out of it for two years, and I figured there was a reason why these places don’t exist. But the more research I did, the more convinced I was that it needed to be done.”
Bell envisions a wide target market that will be attracted to The Shop’s membership option, even with the monthly fee, plus a $500 initiation fee and another $200 per car or $100 per motorcycle per month for secure, climate-controlled storage.
“What we’ll have is literally everybody from the guy who’s storing a Ferrari to somebody who’s wrenching on an old Jeep,” Bell said. “We want to be that sense of community for everybody, to enjoy what it is that they enjoy.”
The space at 2233 Sixth Ave. S. is currently under construction, with 27,000 square feet serving as functioning work space and 9,000 square feet of restaurant, lounge and bar space. Derby will be situated in the center of the layout, with large 10-foot-square windows that will allow patrons to feel connected to the warehouse full of cars and motorcycles.
With space at premium all over Seattle these days, especially for people who need to park or store a vehicle, Bell said The Shop could help address that problem.
“With the Seattle technology crowd and a lot of people living downtown with very limited parking, I think we’ll be a good option for people who like high-performance … tricking out their toys or their rides and having a place to do it.”
Bell also touts the SoDo location of The Shop as a big bonus for future members and visitors with its easy access from I-5 and downtown. Members who are also baseball and football fans will be able to park for free in The Shop’s lot and shuttle or walk to Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field.
“We couldn’t have found a better location,” Bell said. “We just got really lucky that we found this building.”
The Shop will have initial capacity for up to 150 cars and about 30 motorcycles. If demand ramps up quickly, Bell said the business could expand as needed.
There is excitement in his voice when he pictures people sitting on a bar stool in Derby looking out at a warehouse full of cool cars and motorcycles. The lobby of the restaurant will even feature a car and bike of the month. And every visit will be a new experience as new rides catch the attention of visitors.
“The parking lot, I think, is going to be its own fun place to walk through,” Bell said. “Because I’m one of these guys. My car’s sitting in the garage and never gets driven because I don’t have anywhere to go. I think we’re going to be an excuse for people to get their cars out of the garage, drive down to The Shop and get a good bite to eat and meet other people and talk to them about what they love.”
Bell gives credit to the resiliency that it took to be involved in early-stage tech startups, saying it prepared him for getting his new business off the ground — with one noticeable difference.
“When I talked to people about any of the startups I was involved in in the past, you kind of get the, ‘Hmm, that sounds like a good idea.’ People would scratch their chin and be nice and give you some positive feedback that it could work. But when I talked to people about The Shop, they’re like, ‘Holy shit, I love this idea. This is cool. This has to get somewhere doesn’t it?’
“The passion and the enthusiasm for this idea has been a really positive reinforcement to keep going and to make it happen. And that’s not something I’m not used to but I’m super grateful for.”
Along with his own money, Bell has a handful of angel investors helping to get things going. He connected with Stowell because he said he wanted The Shop to have really good food and be the centerpiece of what brings people together — “So, I went to the best.”
“We came up with Derby because both of us wanted it to be appealing to both a food and car audience,” Bell said of the restaurant name brainstorm. “We both remembered from our past that we enjoyed building pinewood derby cars when we were kids. And other people associate it with the Kentucky Derby, which we thought, ‘OK, American classic comfort food. That kind of works, too.'”
Stowell and his wife Angela own the highly acclaimed restaurant group that includes Tavolàta, How to Cook a Wolf, Anchovies & Olives, Staple & Fancy Mercantile, Ballard Pizza Company and more.
“The backdrop of hundreds of classic and luxury cars definitely sets the stage for a unique dining experience,” Ethan Stowell said in a statement. “We’re looking forward to creating a menu that reflects the fun side of this innovative project.”
Bell won’t just be the owner of The Shop, he clearly can’t wait to be a guy who can show off and talk about cars he likes and owns himself.
He said he has “several cars,” but the one he enjoys driving the most is a 1968 Dodge Charger. “Probably because I loved ‘The Dukes of Hazard’ when I was a kid. I also have a 1968 Ford Bronco that I love.”
He also has a white 1963 Chevy Impala with baby blue interior that he found at the annual auto show in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. He was stoked to get it after the birth of his third daughter because he could fit three car seats across the back.
It’s another car story from a guy who looks forward to hearing many more at The Shop.
“Whether you have a car or motorcycle or not, I want this to be a cool place in SoDo. And I always wanted not just a car place, but a place to hang out where I was comfortable.”