One year on: An interview with Boxpark CEO Roger Wade

By - Friday 3rd November, 2017

Twelve months into Boxpark Croydon’s tenure, the man behind the boxes talks to Lauren Furey about the ups, the downs and the surprises

Photo by Chris Brock, used with permission.

If you can believe it, Boxpark Croydon is about to celebrate its first birthday. It’s been twelve whole months since Boxpark’s huge launch weekend with Eskimo Dance and NME. On the one hand, it seems crazy to think that Boxpark has already been here a year but, on the other, it’s becoming a little difficult to remember a time before the events and culinary giant sat alongside East Croydon station. So I returned to the Boxpark office to have a sit down with creator and CEO, Roger Wade. Initially, I expected that our conversation would focus on the last twelve months of food, drinks and events, and on what Croydon might have to look forward to in the future, but unlike the Boxpark aesthetic, things have never exactly been black and white. As Roger said on arrival, “don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions”.

How do you feel looking back on the first year of Boxpark Croydon?

It’s a work in progress. I don’t think we’ve ever been the fully-finished article and there have been a lot of challenges; we couldn’t ever just expect to come to Croydon and regenerate the entire town centre by ourselves. It’s been a good start, but it’s certainly not perfect.

So, what have been some of the challenges you’ve faced and what lessons have been learnt?

One of our biggest challenges was trying to appeal to everyone within the local community. It’s really difficult because Boxpark does have a unique selling point (USP)of  ’Eat. Drink. Play’ – and that has primarily driven us towards a younger audience, who like to go out and… eat, drink and play. At the same time, it’s important that we also appeal to families; it’s important that we appeal to local businesses and local residents. It has been challenging because it’s not as if we have a crystal ball; we had to come to Croydon and start over in recognising who our core customers are, because it’s so different to Shoreditch, where the first Boxpark was created. Shoreditch customers are all about that eat, drink, play lifestyle – that’s just how the area has developed over the years. But people are only just starting to come back into Croydon and they’re rethinking their perception of the borough.

What have been some of the standout moments at Boxpark Croydon over the last twelve months?

Bringing Stormzy back to his hometown for his album launch was incredible. People should recognise that it was a bold statement: ‘Here we are, we’re in Croydon, let’s celebrate a movement that is recognised on the international stage.’ It has been difficult because we’ve been told time and again that we cannot hold a grime event in Croydon, and we’ve responded: ‘well – why not?’. The whole world is in love with grime right now, my thirteen-year-old son loves grime, so why can’t we have these events here, in a town where so many local artists are representing the scene? Stormzy is a local artist who is at the very forefront of grime, so why can’t we make allowances for that? It’s a real shame when certain genres of music are pigeonholed. I experienced this growing up: I remember in the 80s when hip hop was on the rise and people were turning their noses up at it, but that’s what music does; we’ve seen it with hip hop and punk and the rave scene in the 90s, and now we see it with grime. People anticipated some kind of subversive culture around drugs, but the core was always about the music, and that’s what Boxpark is here to do: celebrate the music.

It was also brilliant having So Solid Crew here for the Christmas lights switch-on. These guys are practically the godfathers of grime! When you listen to grime today, you can absolutely backdate it to the garage movement, and garage itself has even had a massive resurgence.

The launch weekend with Eskimo Dance was fantastic because it properly showcased our arrival in Croydon; it was great to have the likes of Section Boyz and JME take to the main stage. It was a big statement. It has been challenging trying to change people’s perception of Croydon but we’re going at it one stage at a time.

So, has there been much pushback in terms of the kind of events that you can host at Boxpark?

Generally, and I’m not just saying this, but Croydon Council, especially the leader of the council, Tony Newman, has been incredibly supportive of the work we’ve been doing and of the music culture. The council wants to see people going out and having a good time in Croydon and I love that. It’s been challenging in that we have had comments from local businesses about the prospect of ‘urban music’ attracting a sort of gang culture into the area. I think we’ve got to really understand what leads to social unrest amongst young people and stop blaming music for that. I think a lot of it comes down to young people having nowhere to go and few options for expressing themselves, so I really don’t think that boxing them into certain social groups and denying them opportunities is the way to go. At Boxpark, we’re here to offer a platform and encourage people of all ages to get involved creatively and make a name for themselves. We’ve also been fortunate to have not had any major incidents since we launched, which I think has surprised some people.

How do you plan to celebrate the first anniversary of Boxpark Croydon?

Unfortunately, the return of Eskimo Dance is not going to happen. It came down to licensing. It wasn’t necessarily the licensing authority’s fault – there were some issues at play and we’re just hoping to move forward. Sunday was always going to be a family focussed all-day music event and we’ll be going ahead with that. There’ll be a mixture of artists and performers, DJs and live music, and the massively popular hip hop karaoke will be returning as well. There will even be two rising stars from Croydon’s very own BRIT School performing on the day too, so, hopefully there’ll be something for everyone.

What can Boxpark Croydon look forward to in the next twelve months?

We’re working on an ambitious programme of larger events, so you’ll see a more progressive list of major events happening at Boxpark Croydon. Looking back, we’ve had to be fairly critical of our first year and recognise things we maybe could have done differently with regards to licensing and event promoters. It’s definitely fair to say that we’ve not had as many events as we’d hoped to have in our first year in Croydon; you’re going to see that rectified in 2018. We want to reach out to a variety of groups within the local community and develop new events.

Are there any specific local groups you hope to work with in the future?

This is a general call-out to all groups – come and work with us. The reality is that we are one of the major attractions in Croydon and we want Croydon to make the most of that. We have a strong community drive, we don’t charge for the use of most of the space and, so, if it’s a good idea, we’ll put it on. This is a direct message to Croydon – speak to us. We’re absolutely ready and willing to develop more local partnerships.

Were you pleased with the public response when Boxpark launched?

The response has been great from the local community. I’d say a good 99% of it has been positive but you’ll always have your haters out there, people who want to write things about us that simply aren’t true or just use social media to submit negative comments. They are always going to do that. We can’t spend our time worrying about it. We are focussed on the day to day running of Boxpark and we want to ensure that everyone who comes through our doors leaves with a smile. We’re not going to waste any time or energy on the haters.

Have local businesses been as enthusiastic about Boxpark?

Unfortunately, some local companies have seen Boxpark as a threat to their business but I don’t think that’s the right attitude. I think we have to work together to build a bigger and better Croydon. It would be like me being negative towards the Westfield development that’s coming to Croydon, but my feeling about that is the complete reverse: I’m excited for them to come to town. I can’t wait, bring it on! I wish that other local businesses took the same attitude, because it’s been a challenge. We’ve reached out to people – we’ve said ‘look, we’ve got a space here, come and use it, embrace it’.

What have been some of the most difficult comments you’ve faced since arriving in Croydon?

The biggest misconception about us is that we had a major pay-out from Croydon Council. But it was a standard commercial loan and loans get repaid. As a temporary venue, we relied on the support of the council but we’ve also helped to create hundreds of jobs for the people of Croydon: at least 400 jobs. There are people out there who think we’ve survived on a free hand-out, which we haven’t. Since Boxpark has arrived, more people have returned to Croydon to socialise and enjoy their town, and other new businesses have been attracted to the area. It’s not all about affordable rent and good transport links. Companies also actually want to plant themselves in areas where their employees will want to eat, drink and play.

I am great believer in trying to improve an area. I’m not about protectionism. When people say they’re worried about local businesses – we’re not, we want to see a bigger and brighter Croydon. So, it’s frustrating when local organisations are worried about Boxpark’s effect on surrounding businesses. That would be like the retail tenants of the Whitgift Centre complaining about the new Croydon Partnership; we can’t be stuck in the old ways, we’ve got to embrace change and not be frightened of it. You shouldn’t complain about your lot – step up, make your place of business bigger and better. For example, our BoxBar is only open until midnight, but where are the other places people can go on to for the night? Boxpark can only host a dozen major events each year, so where are the other major event spaces in Croydon? We need to do things collectively to improve our situation.

Initially, we were told that Boxpark would be in Croydon for at least five years. Is that still the case now?

We hope to be here for as long as the people of Croydon want us. We certainly don’t have any plans to close the doors after the next four years. We want to be here for ten years at least.

Croydon is the current frontrunner for London Borough of Culture 2019. Do you think Boxpark has helped to play a part in that?

I think we’ve certainly helped to change people’s view of Croydon. I meet people now and they say, ‘I hear that Croydon is the next happening borough’, and I don’t think that kind of talk was really around before Boxpark arrived. We’ve seen papers like the Evening Standard make a bigger feature of Croydon as a place to be and Boxpark has been widely publicised but, overall, I think we’re just a part of that. All of the venues of culture within Croydon play their part and we all need to work together.

What is your favourite thing about Croydon?

I’m a big fan of the people of Croydon. The majority of the people in Croydon are looking for change and they see it as a positive thing. Croydon is one of the largest boroughs in London and it has some really diverse areas. You’ve got lots of different demographics, great schools and a thriving music scene. The people here are very understated – they’ve had a rough ride over the last couple of decades. I mean, it was David Bowie who said the worst thing you can say about something is ‘it’s so f*cking Croydon‘. I loved his music, but I can’t say I agree with that statement. Croydon is on the up and Boxpark is really just the tip of the iceberg.

In 2017, Boxpark Shoreditch had a summer makeover and was granted its drinking license. How has that affected business?

Boxpark Shoreditch has enjoyed a major resurgence since the refit in June. It’s gone from strength to strength. The ability for us to run the license there has given us the control to keep the drinking and dining all under one roof. It’s doing extremely well at the moment. Shoreditch is king right now, in terms of area, but I remember when there were prostitutes out on Commercial Street and there were only a handful of bars and restaurants. The reality is that things change really quickly and we hope to see the same kind of success in Croydon.

Can you talk a bit about Boxpark Wembley?

What you’re witnessing right now with Boxpark is the evolution of an idea. We built the world’s first pop-up mall in Shoreditch in 2011 with a focus on retail and high street fashion, and then the first food and beverage only concept arrived in Croydon where we set out to create a hub for eating and entertainment all under one roof. I think Wembley will ultimately combine those two projects and take it to the next level. It will be the first Boxpark that is fully enclosed. It’s on an iconic site, at Wembley Way, and we hope it will become a major fan zone for people visiting the stadium and arena.

Finally, what was the last song you listened to?

The Fureys – When You Were Sweet 16. It was my grandfather’s favourite song and he’s Irish. That is mad…I’ve just realised, you’re a Furey! Are you related?

Sadly, I’m not.

However you feel about Boxpark, it’s here to stay, for a while at least. It will remain next to East Croydon station as the rest of the town centre continues to develop and evolve around it. It’s hard to really imagine how Croydon might look in the coming years, but with pioneering thinkers like Roger flooding into the borough with big businesses and fresh ideas, it’s an exciting prospect too. I’d like to think that Croydon will eventually reclaim Bowie’s famous derogatory quote and re-appropriate it as a positive statement – yeah, it’s so f*cking Croydon.

An out of date author biography initially suggested the author of this piece is employed by Boxpark, which is not the case. This has now been corrected.

Lauren Furey

Lauren Furey

I was born in Croydon in 1988 and I've spent my life here, building friendships and experiences that have shaped me as a person. As a Croydon native, I have a big passion for local events, arts, history and culture... and the dearly departed Mexway. I now work as a freelance writer.

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  • Anne Giles

    I would disagree with the statement that the whole world is in love with Grime. The only person I know who loves it is our cleaner’s teenage son.

  • darran leo king

    Rubbish no one took any notice for this boring started at 4pm finnsh at 8,30pm no labour party when gave 3 million 160,000 per year read #eatdrinkplay #boxpark #boxparkcroydon each one Worthless

  • darran leo king

    Grow up croydon this croydon boxpark is rubbish half dead remember no trun up for the 1st birthday no one cares only few food outlets are good the rest are boring why do croydonis keep trying to big up boxpark crap why do keep voting for labour look at out town centre dead now #savematthewsyard #saveDavidLeanCinema read you 3 million 160,000 per year #croydon gets #boxpark #boxparkcroydon #croydonboxpark #eatdrinkplay each one rubbish Worthless

  • darran leo king

    Saying Roger flooding the borough with big businesses and fresh ideas grow up give bk our 3 million also boxpark stays open until 1pm so what happend to the famous stop gap close at 11pm plus once again you mugs going vote for labour forget about good reputation for croydon town centre plus 5,2 billion private investments in Croydon we end up with #warholcroydon waste of space as #risegallery #croydonart #surreystreet #croydonvstheworld #croydonstreetart #boxpark #boxparkcroydon #eatdrinkplay Prue Rubbish as for #boroughofculture forget that why #warholcroydon no art work sold how much did labour spend again plus #saveDavidLeanCinema & #savematthewsyard now ask your wonderfully boring @risegalleryuk they can do it so carry with labour enjoy payout for nothing remember don’t use #croydon2019 is dead hashtag

  • darran leo king

    The whole year with boxpark when labour close down our town centre stop having any new bars or night clubs now this( no one from the labour party trun up ) for most boring dead 1st birthday why ask them after all cost us 3 million 160,000 per year aslo this boxpark should put croydon on the Map sorry your reputation gone missing no one cares one bit for any free music events 1extra gone linkup TV gone boxpark got nothing apart from our tax money 3 million nice one labour as for staying grow up look read you labour votes mugs #eskimodance why because boxpark has not got enough toilets plus by law they can only have 500 members of public because all the staff use the same public toilets thanks to your labour council giving them planning permission yes against law but hi this croydon Labour as for your bid for #boroughofculture grow up #savematthewsyard #saveDavidLeanCinema tell boxpark to go away so happy piss off to #wembley plus where is our Liz she couldn’t get enough of boxpark same with Rob 98 can’t remember some about croydon tec any way am wrong again as my twitter account gets blocked from all Labour voters then again did I close down a town centre 4 years ago would had 70k on Friday night same on Sat up to 70k members of public was sending money at weekends in our town centre now enjoy half dead boxpark big up #cookdaily plus am going to see if I like any more food out let’s as for this crap called the cronx bar be told they don’t belong to #cronx their are #thecronx made by labour mugs lol

  • Reena

    She is paid by Boxpark, what are you talking about?!

    • Lauren Furey

      I haven’t updated my LinkedIn in a long while but no, I’m a freelance writer. Not employed by Boxpark.

  • Andrew

    Shouldn’t advertorial be marked?