• Jeff Schober

A new fashion brand in hockey's culture

Updated: Oct 14, 2019

Young entrepreneurs market JDH apparel in Buffalo

August 7, 2019: Nick Ciavarella, Matt Keeler, and Ben Madafferi cram into their storage room with the latest JDH designs. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

In one tiny bedroom is the heat press, where designs are printed onto shirts, shorts, hoodies and hats. In the next, boxes line the wall, filled with inventory. It’s only in the third bedroom that there is space enough to sleep.

From his 700-square foot apartment on Main Street in Buffalo’s Theater District, Matt Keeler and his two best friends operate a growing start-up company. Just Dishin’ is a clothing line inspired by the hockey culture.

This trio, all in their 20s, represent the next wave of innovation in Buffalo, building their business from the ground up.

Just Dishin’, or JDH, was begun by Keeler when he was a high school sophomore in Albion, N.Y. When he graduated from St. John Fisher College in Rochester with a business degree, he chose Buffalo as the perfect spot to find a day job and continue the evolution of his company.

Growing up, Keeler’s three passions were always hockey (he played for St. John Fisher), design, and fashion. As a teen, he recognized there was a gap in the market for those combined interests. So he purchased high quality blank apparel and began adding his own designs to them. By college, word spread, and students frequently knocked on his dorm room door, hoping to buy his latest t-shirt.

With his childhood friend, Ben Madafferi, Keeler originally dubbed his start-up “Just Dangle Hockey.” But a Canadian firm contacted him, saying they owned a trademark on that phrase.

“We were ‘Just Dangle’ from 2012-15, when we received a cease and desist from a company in Ontario,” Keeler explained. “They had an international trademark. So we could give them 20 percent royalty each year, or we could switch our name. It was kind of a crossroads for us. We put our heads together and decided what to do. The JDH logo was notable and we were known for our abbreviation. It made sense to change the ‘D’ and run with it.”

Alexis Chilson, left, and Jacquie Greco sport JDH clothing and sunglasses. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

Encouraged by a college professor, Keeler entered Just Dishin’ in the New York State Business Plan Competition, where they won the People’s Choice Award in fashion and design brand, and advanced to the finals.

Around this time, Keeler made the decision to begin his professional career in Buffalo. His family owned a third-generation construction company in Albion, and he turned down an opportunity to stretch it to four generations.

“I sat down with my dad and talked about the future,” Keeler said. “I’ve been a Bills and Sabres fan my whole life. It felt right to come to Buffalo and put my footprint here. The city is on the rebound, and I can feel the energy and passion.”

He accepted a day job with VSP Graphic Group, and convinced his girlfriend, Alexis Chilson, a Binghamton native, to join him in Buffalo. Now, two of the three bedrooms in their small apartment are dedicated to Just Dishin’

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said with a grin.

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T-shirts. Baseball caps. Jogging pants. Shorts. Sunglasses. Flags. At one point, there were even flip-flops made with real hockey laces. If it’s fashionable, there’s a good chance Just Dishin’ is selling it.

Abbey Staebell, Olivia Brooks, Jacquie Greco and Alexis Chilson sport JDH shirts. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

“Our products have a balance between hockey and fashion,” explained Nick Ciavarella, a former hockey player at the junior and college level, who is Chief of Operations. “A lot of men who don’t even play hockey buy our merchandise. They just think the designs are cool. We have female customers for the same reason.”

“We’re trying to brand ourselves as fashion, but still have the hockey culture,” Keeler said. “We like to ride the thin line between copyright infringement and creative common law.”

As an example, Keeler pointed to the “Creation Flag” he designed — a takeoff on Michelangelo’s painting — featuring Buffalo Sabres Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner touching fingers. TV cameras caught Sabres’ fans displaying the flag at a home game last season. Now it’s for sale as both a flag and t-shirt.

“We stay away from property the Sabres own,” he said. “Obviously, we don’t use logos, but we try to gear more towards players. They’re less likely to request that we don’t use their likeness. Many of them think it’s funny when we use their image. It’s cool because it’s helping their brand.”

They have not heard feedback from Eichel or Skinner about the “Creation Flag.”

“But we know several Sabres own our stuff,” Keeler said.

“We’re waiting for one of them to rock it during an on-camera interview,” Ciavarella said hopefully.

Ciavarella joined Just Dishin’ in 2017. A Hamburg native, he is finishing a marketing degree at the University at Buffalo, and uses those skills to grow the company by posting videos on the Just Dishin’ website — He believes social media is the best method to generate sales to young people.

JDH founders Matt Keeler, seated, and Ben Madafferi set up the heat press for their latest clothing design. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

“It’s a free platform,” Ciavarella said. “Parents say kids spend too much time on their phones, but why not take advantage of it? Social media is changing the game.”

“Nick was able to bring an element to the brand that we’ve never had before,” Keeler observed. “Until he came on board, I was doing everything from design, supplying and order fulfillment to organizing pop-ups. He has hockey connections and video editing skills that are unmatched. We mesh really well.”

Madafferi, the third team member, handles public relations. He works as a DJ, so he’s responsible for music in the videos Ciavarella assembles.

Modeling with attitude, from left: Olivia, Abbey, Alexis, and Jacquie. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

“Ben was one of my best friends growing up,” Keeler said. “He’s very creative. He’s also a great mediator for the company, because Nick and I can get anxious about products. He cautions us to slow down and look at the big picture. He has an overall vision for the brand.”

Just Dishin’ launches a new clothing line each season, and they display their goods at pop-up shops around Western New York, like Riverworks, the Cellar on Elmwood Avenue, and Canalside.

“Surprisingly, some of our biggest sales are in the summer,” Keeler observed. “But we haven’t always seen a consistent trend. It depends on when we’re dropping a new line.”

Last season, when the Sabres won ten straight games, sales spiked as well. When the Sabres do well, demand for hockey-related gear goes up.

“They have a positive influence, but we’re trying not to rely on that,” Keeler said.

From the vision of a high school sophomore, Just Dishin’ continues to evolve. They have taken on an intern, and their short-term goal is to secure office space sometime in the next year. Within five years, they plan to have a permanent retail store.

“I can’t imagine doing this anywhere except in Buffalo,” Keeler said.

© 2019 by Jeff Schober

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Jeff Schober and Steve Desmond will be speaking about Buffalo Tales at the Eden Library (2901 East Church Street, Eden, N.Y.) at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 23. The event is free and open to all. Bring your questions and story ideas. Jeff will also be discussing his newest book, Justin Time, which makes a great holiday present!


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