Having been abandoned by their staff baristas, Matthew’s Yard is now threatening to call in the barristers.
Sited off Surrey Street, Matthew’s Yard is the favoured haunt of leading Croydon Tories and gentrifiers, with its overpriced coffees and pretentious snacks. But the venue’s “workspace” has been closed down by the proprietor after a visit yesterday from Fire Brigade safety officers.
There followed a late-night rant on social media from Saif Bonar, Matthew’s Yard’s “founder”, in which he accused the Labour-run council of bullying, racial discrimination and a myriad of other faults.
In an email, seen by Inside Croydon, which was sent to all 70 of Croydon’s elected councillors, Bonar announced, “You will be pleased to note that our workspace in Exchange Square has been closed with immediate effect and we will be ceasing development of the space until further notice.”
In another email, Bonar wrote: “It is completely unacceptable on so many levels for a local authority to behave the way your officers are behaving… Valid concerns about corruption, racism and impropriety within the licensing department at Croydon Council and the police licensing department have rightly been aired in private and … in public. I feel each and every one of you has a moral duty to the citizens of Croydon to get to the bottom of what is going on and take control of your unscrupulous officers!”
On Twitter, one of Bonar’s closest supporters made another serious allegation following the Fire Officers’ visit: “What kind of health and safety officer launches a search into personal belongings and confiscates letters?”
The persecution narrative is one which has been pursued by Matthew’s Yard for some time. Bonar lodged a complaint last year, claiming that a council officer had broken into Matthew’s Yard in the dead of night. Despite the all-seeing eye of CCTV in and around the venue, nothing appears to have come of the claims since.
For the past few months, Bonar has been trying to develop a money-spinning workspace “extension”. But it is less than a year since he said publicly that his dream of a Clerkenwell-style hipster hang-out, with bar, cafe, theatre and art gallery, was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Matthew’s Yard opened in 2012 after Bonar was offered use of the derelict former industrial space at a very favourable rent by local businessman, Paul Collins. According to Bonar, somewhat opportunistically, he was shown the building in the days after the Croydon riots.
For Bonar, the misery of the riots was some sort of main chance. “The attention of the world was on Croydon. I thought ‘if there’s any time to do it then this is a good time’,” Bonar boasted in an interview last year.
But financial viability has eluded Matthew’s Yard. Staff walked out, in some instances after their wages were late or unpaid. Customers complained of poor service and overpriced food. A bid to run the cafe in Wandle Park was rejected by the council.
A Crowdfunding scheme was launched to pay off some of the credit card bills and money borrowed from Bonar’s girlfriend, once she’d become his ex-girlfriend. But Inside Croydon has heard from some contributors to that Crowdfunding exercise that their promised “benefits” for investing have never been honoured.
Last year, Bonar switched to a different business model: he’s sought investors and offered shares, and instead of employing staff and operating the kitchen and bar, he has been franchising out the food and drink operations to established specialists. Matthew’s Yard’s “gallery space” is now run by Bonar’s latest girlfriend.
Supported by some of his close associates, including sometime Exchange Square resident Mario Creatura – MP Gavin Barwell’s former aide, now a Conservative councillor for Coulsdon – Bonar recently launched what has been called the Sunshine Tax campaign, petitioning against the council’s increase in street licensing fees.
Bonar claims that his street trading licence fee would increase by more than 2,000per cent. The licence fee hike is largely because, for the first three years of Matthew’s Yard’s existence, his business had got away with paying very little for the privilege of having tables and chairs for his customers sprawled across the pavement outside his coffee shop.
What Bonar has been less forthcoming about is that his business has been having ongoing problems fulfilling the terms of its various operating licences, including live music and performance licences. Inside Croydon understands that last month, Bonar even had a personal visit to discuss the problems from Jo Negrini, widely regarded as the most powerful official in Croydon after CEO Nathan Elvery; Negrini is the council’s executive director for the “Place” department, overseeing the regeneration agenda for developers Westfield.
Yet even that high-powered intervention to assist Bonar to meet the public responsibilities of his business doesn’t seem to be enough.
“Further to yesterday’s scrutiny meeting and me being vocal about impropriety within the council and other responsible authorities,” Bonar ranted in one of his emails to councillors last night, “it is interesting to note that we had an ‘informal’ visit from the LFB [London Fire Brigade] today at the request of the council’s licensing team.
“This is exactly the sort of underhand bullying tactics licensees are referencing when they make claims of corruption and impropriety within and outwith the council,” Bonar wrote.
Bonar had spoken at the Town Hall debate on Tuesday about Croydon’s night-time economy. Earlier this month, Councillor Creatura had staged his own meeting on the issue, which had become a lukewarm topic following the closure of night club Tiger Tiger. Creatura’s meeting was poorly attended, with only one of those present under the age of 25. Creatura’s meeting was staged at… Matthew’s Yard.
Bonar – or “Saif Boner” as he was erroneously or mischievously captioned during the council scrutiny committee webcast – had used Tuesday’s meeting to vent at how his business was being disadvantaged by various council initiatives, including the short-lived and spectacularly unsuccessful pop-up Surrey Streatery, and now the multi-milion-pound council loan to a food-and-drink Boozepark.
In his email to Croydon councillors, Bonar wrote: “Please don’t underestimate my resolve to rout [sic] out corrupt practices in your organisation…
“I find it incredibly disheartening that an organisation who should view us as a critical partner in the mutually beneficial development of Croydon is so uncomfortable with the questions being raised that it feels the need to adopt such overt bullying and coercion tactics to silence dissent.”
Bonar then said that he will be “leaving Croydon permanently before the summer of this year”, which means that he might not be around to witness the opening of Boozepark…
Next came his threat of legal action: “I would like to leave on a high and with Matthew’s Yard intact but I will consider bringing legal action against the local authority for the emotional distress and disruption, loss of earnings and other financial implications of your actions which I believe to be bordering in criminal.”
This morning, a senior council source told Inside Croydon that Bonar’s conspiracy theories are entirely unfounded. After rejecting the non-specific allegations, they said that they were aware that, as well as other licensing issues, there has been on-going problems with the venue’s fire safety equipment, including regulation compliant fire doors.
“He’s accusing council officers of corruption,” the Town Hall source said. “That’s really unfair. Council officers are good solid people who work hard.
“The Fire Brigade were in Old Town yesterday, and they popped in to see Matthew’s Yard, and they expressed some concerns about safety in the venue and the works going on.
“The Fire Brigade has a job to do, an important job. The visit was nothing to do with the council, but it is in everyone’s best interests that all public premises meet the fire regulations.”
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