“Stop sort of complaining about your lot and get on with rising to the challenge, that’s my message to people,” businessman Roger Wade said recently.
“You can’t have the council going out trying to protect local businesses.”
Wade is the founder of Boxpark, the East Croydon-based venue which ahead of its first year of operation received a £3million loan from Croydon Council, plus £180,000 in public subsidy from the Town Hall. So the idea of Wade offering tough-love advice to other businesses which have not received a penny from Croydon Council may seem a little rich.
Especially so since, in the past couple of months, Wade’s Boozepark has seen around half a dozen of its food and drink tenants shut up shop and quit Croydon amid growing discontent at the management style and decisions of their landlords.
MUD, a fair dink ’em Australian brunch and coffee bar, closed down its Boxpark unit in the past week, to join an exodus of traders which includes Donde tapas bar (still operating in Honor Oak Park), The Potato Project (which has an outlet in Soho), Department of Coffee and Knot.When council-subsidised Boozepark opened in October 2016, they boasted of having “over 40” different outlets housed in their jazzed-up disused shipping containers. By October 2017, according to a small circulation newspaper based in Guildford, there were 39 outlets.
On Boxpark’s own website tonight, they list just 34.
One Croydon-based restaurant was offered what was described as “favourable terms” to move into Boxpark but declined, deterred by the prospect of not breaking even on the arrangement for at least a year.
There have been complaints about heavy-handed security (Boxpark got rid of its original security firm earlier this year after “issues”) and a failure to secure a licence for events which saw an Eskimo Dance gig cancelled at short notice in October. Promoters Eskimo Dance, who had staged one of the first events at Boxpark Croydon, said that they had been “grossly let down”, though they are due to be back on New Year’s Eve (tickets: a handy £20, plus a booking fee).
For Boxpark traders, past and present, who we have contacted, big-number Christmas and New Year parties do little for their bottom line. The food outlets want to sell what is often premium-priced food (directors of Westfield have praised Boxpark for “getting Croydon ready for the 10 quid burger”). But that’s rarely what the audiences for Stormzy and Eskimo Dance gigs, which have been hailed as Boxpark’s big successes, are looking for.
In short, there is a disconnect between Boxpark as the all-year-round almost-open-air rave venue which makes for easy headlines, and the business model of many of its food retailing tenants, burdened with rents, rising business rates, and disappointing footfall.
For a daytime operation such as MUD, with its focus on brunch (their Tooting branch is currently recruiting for a chef on the basis that they would not have to work evenings), big events after 6pm provide them with little.
One business owner would only speak to Inside Croydon on grounds of anonymity. “I don’t want Roger from Boxpark coming round and telling me I have ruined his business,” they said, without even realising that last year Wade had tried, but failed, to intimidate Inside Croydon by threatening to sue this website.
One Arkell v Pressdram-style response later, and Wade’s lawyers have never been heard of since (though the site’s Editor’s family are eternally grateful to the many loyal readers who supported our #BoxparkBallsFund so generously).
The owner of the now ex-Boxpark business said that they had made the decision to leave Croydon not because of any rent rise but because of the disappointing number of people coming in to eat at their outlet. “Considering the number of people they have been attracting, it is already a very high rent,” they said.
“We were told there would be 3,000 visitors per day, which for 35 restaurants would be enough. But it was not that number, and it wasn’t growing steadily, either.”
Indeed, according to figures from Croydon councillor Mark Watson, the cabinet member for business, when Boxpark has staged an event, the average attendance is barely 300.
In an official response to a council question, Watson revealed that Croydon is continuing to do what Wade suggests that they shouldn’t be doing, and “trying to protect a local business”: the council has been partners to 10 events staged at Boozepark in a six-month period earlier this year.
Watson said, “In order to support their tenants Boxpark have delivered an extensive event and promotional programme to attract visitors. Between January and June 2017 Boxpark Croydon held 157 events (10 of these events were held in partnership with Croydon Council). These events featured 420 performers and were attended by 48,052 people.”
Do the math.
Watson is the council cabinet member who spent £1.2million on resurfacing Surrey Street and managed to halve the number of street stalls trading there. He describes Boxpark’s events as “offering a real draw for visitors”.
That’s not the view of the business owner who has decided to quit Croydon. They questioned the style and choice of events being staged in Boozepark, and the music played most days. “They play rap music all day long,” they said.
“There’s nothing wrong with rap music, but it tends to attract younger customers. People who have money and want to spend it on eating out are not 18-year-olds.
“It’s good to have parties with lots of young people drinking, but they weren’t buying food.”
The ex-Boozepark trader also confirmed the growing discontent with Boxpark running its own business – BoxBar – in competition with its tenants.
As Inside Croydon has reported, Boxpark restricts its tenants to selling alcohol only up to 10.30pm most nights; BoxBar then has a monopoly on the late-night drinkers. And the company has applied to Croydon Council recently to get a late-night licence extension so that it can stay open until 1am – but only for its own BoxBar.
“It’s ridiculous having their own outlet there – they are in competition with their tenants,” the business owner said. “Many of the traders were not happy about this.”
Things must be getting twitchy at the Town Hall, though, because Watson says he “will be holding a surgery in Boxpark for occupiers to better understand their concerns and to identify what the council, partners and Boxpark themselves can do to ensure continues [sic] success”.
With the sort of rampant hypocrisy only Croydon’s Tories can muster, at Monday night’s council meeting some wannabe councillors were demanding that the Labour-run council – which forked out huge sums of money to bring Boxpark to East Croydon in the first place – should be doing more to help Wade’s business.
This, of course, goes against Wade’s own public statements on free markets and business. But it surely cannot be long before Boozepark is, in Wade’s own words, “rising to the challenge”.
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