Q&A: Leslie Matista seeks to foster community at The Velvet Hippo

Leslie Matista, owner of The Velvet Hippo in Durham, poses in her office.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

By Hannah Collett

Leslie Matista is a longtime Triangle bartender who opened The Velvet Hippo in July 2023 with her partners hoping to make it a place where anyone would feel comfortable. The Velvet Hippo, located on Orange Street, has both indoor and outdoor spaces and regularly hosts events and fundraisers.

The Durham VOICE’s Hannah Collett sat down with Matista to discuss the ins and outs of her business.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Durham Voice: How long have you owned this business and how did it get started?

Leslie Matista: Well, I guess I’ve technically owned this business since, like 2021, which is when we started our LLC. But we officially opened at the very end of July.

And how did you get the idea? I know that you own it with some friends and your wife.

I’ve been a bartender since I was 21 and worked in the restaurant business since I was 15. As soon as I could legally get behind the bar, I was like, “get me back there.” So I’ve worked at tons of bars, restaurants and nightclubs and managed a bunch of them. I’ve always wanted to have my own and have been collecting ideas here and there. I really wanted to open something in Durham. I’m from Greensboro, and I ended up being, like, let me actually just move [to Durham] and get to know some people, work a couple of places, make some friends. I feel like it’s really about who you know in this business.

During the pandemic, we all were not really doing that much. I was talking to my wife, Claire, about it because she’s in finance. So she’s like “let me help you with your business plan.” Then from there, it kind of became, well, what if we do this together? And my sister was always saying she’d help me with my marketing because she’s a marketing director. Amy, Claire’s sister, wanted to do it, and then one of our really close friends, Alison, who works at the real estate agency right around the corner, wanted to do it, too.

How has it been so far?

It’s been good. It’s really hard not bartending, I hate that. When we first opened, it was a lot busier than we thought it would be, so I definitely jumped back there, and it was like helping them and bartending with them all the time. But now they know what they’re doing and, you know, I do miss it. Also, it was really hard getting it open. There are so many factors and timelines that have to come together.

Speaking of the finances, how did you fund the business originally?

We went through a lot of things with that. We had a different location in mind originally. My original idea was much smaller. But as we got into it and money started getting crazy with COVID, we were like, “Oh, man, we’re gonna need to get a bank loan.” I was going to sign a lease somewhere else, but my friend Alva, who is the building manager of this building now, told me about this building. She knew I wanted a lot of outdoor space and an inside-outside bar concept and had thought about the downstairs because they have huge windows. And I was like, “Well, what about the three-story and two-story buildings? Could I be on the third floor and then you walk out onto the roof?”

What inspired the name The Velvet Hippo?

I always wanted to name the bar after my dog, Griffin. And then my sister was like, “I don’t like that.” She said that she felt like I wanted a whimsical, tropical neighborhood bar vibe, and The Griffin was the name of an old English pub. She came up with the idea of calling it The Velvet Hippo, for all pitbulls. (Velvet hippo is a common nickname for that dog breed.)

You do a happy hour with dogs every weekend, along with other events. What events are your favorite?

My original location for the bar was a first-floor set up, so we were like, it’ll be dog friendly outside all the time. But with this setup, that got more challenging, so Alva came up with the idea of using the fire escape to have the dogs come directly up to the outdoor area at certain times, and Sarah came up with the name Yappy Hours for it, so that’s a fun event. When we first opened, we were so busy and blessed that I didn’t have time to really do anything. So we started with some DJs and the Yappy Hours, and then we started doing fundraisers, which I really love, especially for dogs. We love our Hope Animal Rescue fundraisers. 

You mentioned that you’d always wanted to have a bar in Durham. Why Durham?

I really wanted to open a queer-friendly community bar for everybody. And Durham has a really vibrant queer community, but they really didn’t have any bars, except for one, and I was like, “Well, let me do that.” Let me do something that’s the balance [between nightclub and dive bar] because that’s really what’s needed out here. There’s a lot of high-end cocktail bars, and there’s a lot of dive bars or breweries, but there’s not a lot of places that you can go on a date, or you can go after school with your computer and chill out with the bartender.

You mentioned wanting to be a queer-friendly space. Is that your target audience?

I want our bar to be for everyone. From working at so many places, I’ve just had so many different regulars. I want to have a safe space for younger people, but really for everybody to come out and visit, so that they can be themselves. You learn so much from all the different people you meet, and trying to have a space where you can have a big rainbow of everyone has been really cool.

How did you come up with some of your cocktail and mocktail names?

I used to name all my drinks when I would do menus for different restaurants. I like to collaborate when I’m making the drinks. When I was bartending, I would make up drinks with the guests and we would collaborate on the names.

My first regular in Durham, Seth, helped me make up a drink and he named it The Garter Belt because it has burlesque bitters in it. I thought it was hilarious, and I never would have thought of that. I put it on my opening menu, and it became the second most popular drink. He came in and he was like, “Our drink!” It was so fun.

The Velvet Hippo has a low-alcohol and alcohol-free menu. Is that to help appeal to a range of audiences?

I think seeing a gap — something that’s not being filled and an audience that’s not being included. A few years ago my sister started getting really bad migraines and cut down on drinking because of that. So she would come visit me and when she would ask for a mocktail anywhere, it would be like club soda with cranberry juice every time. I was working at a bar in Raleigh then, and I decided to work on better mocktails. And so I was really nervous about the mocktail menu, but it’s really taken off. People really appreciate it.