The founder of Boxpark on making a modern market out of a shed, selling Boxfresh, and hiring a Michelin star chef

Katherine Denham
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For an industrial-looking shed, there’s something strangely inviting about this giant black and white box next to Wembley Stadium.

Having opened its doors in December last year, this is Boxpark’s third site, and it’s also the largest, taking up 20,000 square feet of space.

It’s essentially a stripped-back leisure centre – long tables are lined up in the centre of a huge hall, there is a massive TV screen at one end, and 23 food outlets occupy recycled shipping containers around the edge.

Hello Wembley

I follow instructions left by founder and chief executive Roger Wade, who I find in a corner of the huge steel construction.

Wade is the definition of relaxed. He gives me a grand tour of the site, which it turns out is equipped with several bars, a cinema room, and a shared workspace.

He also tells me about some of the events that Boxpark has hosted here, turning the food court into a drum and bass boxercise class, or holding boozy bingo sessions with former Radio 1 DJ Tim Westwood.

Stormzy even performed at the Croydon venue on the day it launched.

The three Boxpark sites are essentially pop-up street markets. While the original site in Shoreditch is both a retail and food outlet, the newer units in Croydon and Wembley (where I am) are entirely focused on food.

It might be a Thursday afternoon, but a handful of customers are already dotted around, eating, drinking, playing pool.

Cannot be contained

When the south London-born founder came up with the idea behind the first Boxpark in Shoreditch, he wanted to create a refreshed version of a conventional shopping centre. When it was built in 2011, it was heralded as the world’s first pop-up mall.

“Back then, we were envisaging the death of the high street,” says Wade, pointing out that – with more or less the same stores – there’s very little to set most British high streets apart.

“We set out to recreate a modern high street, with small independent stores.”

Wade tells me that he wanted the Croydon site to be like a twenty-first century Covent Garden. And given the high, clear ceiling and small outlets, you can see what he means. It’s a simple concept, taking the traditional idea of a street market and tweaking it, creating indoor spaces where people can spend time together.

“Each of the three venues is different, we don’t want to use a cookie-cutter approach,” he explains.

Of course, being a stone’s throw from the stadium means that the Wembley site has become a bit of a fanzone for people going to watch gigs and games. So unlike the Shoreditch and Croydon sites, which have steady crowds of customers, Boxpark Wembley is prone to peaks and troughs as sport and music fans fill and empty the stadium in the evenings and at weekends.

In fact, Wade is keen to switch up the experience for fans, by providing tasty food before gigs, and giving them a place to hang out afterwards.

Fashionable food

Wade founded streetwear brand Boxfresh 30 years ago, which he sold to JD Sports in 2005, and you can see parallels between that business and Boxpark. “The idea around Boxfresh was that it was the complete antithesis of designer wear, the products were meant to be accessible,” he explains.

The same could be said for Boxpark, which centres around good quality, unpretentious food.

Just as streetwear has become fashionable over the years, so has street food – and London has rapidly become a population of foodies.

Recognising this, Wade signed up Michelin star chef Rohit Ghai to run the Koolcha restaurant, or “unit 21”, in order to offer top quality dishes at street food prices. “That’s the sort of culinary experience we want our customers to have.”

It seems daring for Wade to have entered the food and beverage sector at a time when many restaurants are struggling. “The restaurant industry isn’t doing great, but the street vendors are,” he says.

“We’re helping these vendors by providing their first permanent site, while making it really easy for them by financing their kitchens, sorting suppliers, and negotiating bulk deals on their behalf. It means that they can focus on the core part of their business: their food.”

And by creating an environment indoors, it also allows vendors to trade all year round.

Made of sterner stuff

Wade is reluctant to pigeon-hole Boxpark, and stresses his openness to challenge the status quo.

“Other businesses have a plan which they follow, and when that business plan hits the buffer, they don’t have the ability to change. My business plan is that there is one certain thing: the plan is going to change.”

Of course, breaking with convention involves thinking outside of the box.

“It seems quite natural now to launch a retail development out of a shed, bringing it back to the real basics with a steel frame structure, and not getting caught up in contriving design. Actually the most beautiful design you’ll see out there is repurposing things that are used every day.”

By merging the old with the new, Wade has created something edgy and raw.

But while his business is based on physical boxes, metaphorically speaking, it would be unwise to put Wade or his Boxpark into a box.