Back in 2010, the world’s first ‘pop-up mall’ was launched in (where else?) Shoreditch. However, crucially, not only did it house independent retail outlets in its converted shipping containers, it also found room on top for a couple of food and drink outlets.
For Agee Rose, who is now retail director for Boxpark, she was very much in the right place at the right time. Having previously worked in fashion in London, as a stylist for TV and films, for five years, she returned to her hometown of Brighton and moved into in events. She then landed a role working for entrepeneur Roger Wade in a different capacity, but within three months of Rose starting, Wade had had the idea to launch Boxpark and “the rest”, she says, “is history”. “I’ve been doing this for eight-and-a-half years now. I’ve undertaken lots of different roles, but now I focus on getting tenants on board across our sites, for both food and retail.”
Wade had already made his name, not to mention his millions, from setting up and then selling his Boxfresh fashion brand. While he was running this business, he would ship the clothes over in containers, and sometimes the containers would be dressed up. He then had the brainwave: why not consolidate all of these elements, bring the merchandise over in shipping containers then construct a mall out of them?
The original plan was for the structure, and the whole concept, to be temporary, as symbolised by the use of shipping containers, but the business thrived. Looking back, Wade says that Shoreditch was the perfect testing ground, not just because of it association with cutting-edge food and fashion, but also because the local council was trying to regenerate the area at the time. “We got a contract, originally for five years, and we’ve been lucky enough to renew that twice nows” she says. It was originally renewed for two years and a further two-year extension has recently been signed.
Following this sucess, Boxpark Croydon followed in October 2016. The biggest food and culture outlet of its kind in London, it hosts 40 traders from around the world, both established and start-up, set in over 90 containers. It also boasts a 2,000-capacity space, plus a dedicated weekly community events programme that offers music nights, markets, fitness sessions and more.
However, despite this success, as the business expanded the owners were required to box clever and reshape its focus. As you may have noticed, retail – the entire concept behind the original Boxpark – is absent from the newer Croydon location. “As we’ve grown and evolved, we’ve moved away from retail and are focusing more on food and drink,” explains Wade.
Was that because the latter proved to be more popular in Shoreditch? “Pretty much, yeah. The original plan, as Roger’s background is in fashion, was to focus on retail; but as the years went by we realised that actually, food and drink is something that people need every day. With fashion, it’s a bit more disposable. The food and drink, we really saw it thriving.”
So, has a similar opportunity been spotted for the next Boxpark, which will open in Wembley later in the year? “Absolutely. There is a mass market there when it comes to the student population. They’re regenerating the area and there are loads of residential properties being built. In just the year we have been there, so many new buildings have gone up.
“We’ve decided to stick with food and drink, and our events programme, going back to Shoreditch, they were working really well there but we were really limited on space. We’ve got a totally different layout at Shoreditch to Croydon and Wembley. In the latter two we wanted to have spaces where we could maximise on the success of our events further.”
They also have a little more permanency about them than the original did, with Croydon having been negotiated as a five-year lease with the option to renew for a further five. Wembley, meanwhile, goes even further with an initial 10-year lease, and it will also be the largest venue to date. “With Croydon we changed the design,” Wade says. “The focus is on having a piazza space, an area where people can sit, eat and drink, but also a play element where they can have events, watch screenings and take part in workshops.
“With events we learned that customers really enjoy screenings, such as movies and sports. It’s a communal area; everyone can come together as a group but eat and drink something different, and then watch the entertainment. Having that central space has worked really well, and that’s something we want to incorporate into all of our sites.”
This hit a peak during the recent World Cup, when the BBC’s coverage showed euphoric, beer-drenched crowds celebrating when England scored in the Croydon site as part of its coverage. “The total reach we achieved across all media for our World Cup coverage was, I think, over 2.5bn,” says Wade. “At one point we had four or five TV stations down at Croydon filming.
“That was amazing exposure and helped set the tone for Wembley, with it being synonymous with sport and music. We want to be a fan zone; we want to be a place where people can eat, drink and play, which is what our ethos is all about.”
Bringing it back to the most important element, the food, how do they choose their vendors, who include big names such as Shake Shack and The Breakfast Club? “A lot of eating!” laughs Wade. “It’s a mixture – we obviously get people who approach us directly, and we go out and source people, so literally pounding the streets and going to street food markets and festivals. We do get a lot of crap: ‘Hi, I’ve got this great idea!’ ‘Have you got any experience?’ ‘No.’ So we recommend that they trial it first. We also work with the client agent TWM. It’s good because it gives us a real mixture of different traders.
“Because we offer relatively low cost, flexible lease terms, it makes it easier for all parties to come on-board. We don’t do any deals, it’s a flat rate across the board, and that’s why we can have a nice mix.”
Looking to the future, Wade is confident that, despite recent turbulent times for some high street big names and the uncertain political and financial climate, street food will continue to grow. “The worst bit has happened,” she says. “Like anything, it has its peaks and troughs, and I think the low point has come for the casual dining industry.
“It’s here to stay, because of the flexibility of being able to pop up in any location, and because landlords are now offering more affordable rents. Also, people are much more aware of what they’re eating, especially in the digital age. You have to be on top of your game, with passion and a great product, to succeed though.”
And it would appear that Boxpark is very much happy to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to this prediction, as Wade reveals when we finish our chat with me asking what their plans are for the future. “More sites!” she says. “We want to expand, roll out and have five Boxparks in the next couple of years. We’re talking to people about opening sites in major cities across the UK, overseas, everywhere. We will always focus on the food, drink and events.”
Which just goes to show how far this business has come in a relatively short space of time, evolving from a fashion outlet to a foodie one. All it takes is a little flexibility, imagination – and being prepared to think outside the box.