A re­tail mav­er­ick who knows the value of think­ing out­side the box

Box­park boss tells Rhi­an­non Curry how, done well, food and re­tail can thrive

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business - Roger Wade

Af­ter a bruis­ing few months for the restau­rant scene, with Jamie’s Ital­ian, By­ron and Prezzo clos­ing dozens of out­lets, you might think that now was a bad time to think about open­ing a new foodie des­ti­na­tion. But that is ex­actly what Roger Wade, founder of the ship­ping con­tainer shop­ping cen­tre Box­park, is plan­ning to do.

Wade, a half Ir­ish-half Malaysian Lon­doner whose pris­tine train­ers hint at his be­gin­nings as a cloth­ing en­trepreneur, is evan­gel­i­cal about the idea that in­de­pen­dent brands will thrive even in tough times. “If you don’t have a point of dif­fer­ence you’re not go­ing to sur­vive,” he says.

Box­park is about to o open its third out­let, in Wem­b­ley, and nd as Wade strolls around the orig­i­nal gi­nal in Lon­don’s Shored­itch he points out the most suc­cess­ful ful out­lets: a ve­gan restau­rant, two o guys mak­ing chicken burg­ers, gers, and a new events space that t Box­park can lease out t for pri­vate par­ties.

Be­fore Box­park, Wade had been known for found­ing cloth­ing brand and Boxfresh, which he sold old to Pent­land, the own­ers ers of JD Sports, in 2005.

Af­ter that, he was look­ing for his next big ig idea when he landed upon re­tail­ers launch­ing hing pop-up ex­hi­bi­tions or r brand launches in ship­ping con­tain­ers.

“I went to the peo­ple ple at Pent­land and said ‘I’ve ve got this idea for ship­ping con­tain­ers, to cre­ate stores in these re­ally cheap lo­ca­tions’, and they said ‘you’re crazy’,” he ex­plains.

Un­de­terred, Wade used his own money to as­sem­ble 60 re­cy­cled ship­ping con­tain­ers on a plot of land on the edge of the City and leased each box to a small brand or restau­rant. The project was launched at the end of 2011 to co­in­cide with the Olympic Games and by all ac­counts it was a suc­cess, al­though not in the way Wade might have ex­pected. Rather than the re­tail­ers on the ground floor prov­ing pop­u­lar, it was the restau­rants above that re­ally drew the crowds. “When the Olympics fin­ished, a lot of the orig­i­nal ten­ants moved on, and ac­tu­ally it was the bit that we didn’t plan to do re­ally well that did well – the food and drink bit up­stairs,” he ex­plains.

“Al­most as an af­ter­thought we said ‘oh let’s do a bit of food and drink’, but that’s the bit that ex­ploded. The growth wasn’t in in­de­pen­dent re­tail­ing, but in in­de­pen­dent street food.”

The sec­ond Box­park in Croy­don con­tin­ued this trend, fo­cus­ing solely on food and drink. In Wem­b­ley, the model will be slightly sligh dif­fer­ent. In­stead of a se­ries of small restau­rants, Box­park will lease enough space to com­pa­nies for just the kitchens them­selves, while it will run the seat­ing ar­eas, ev­ery­thing from the chairs and ta­bles to the nap­kins, cen­trally. As well we as serv­ing vis­i­tors to the site it­self, the kitchens will ful­fil or­ders for de­liv­ery com­panie com­pa­nies in­clud­ing De­liv­eroo, Just East and Uber Eats. This is the fu­ture, Wade says.

“I think th there’s a back­lash away from tak­ing on huge spa­ces with long leases – the cus­tomer doesn’t want that and nor do the busi­nesses,” he says.

“I see things mov­ing to­wards a much more kitchen con­cept, which lets the in­de­pen­dent trader fo­cus on what they’re good at do­ing, which is the food. What you get as a ben­e­fit is we’re re­spon­si­ble for clean­ing, se­cu­rity, the foot­fall.”

De­liv­ery driv­ers will have ac­cess to a wait­ing area with show­ers and chang­ing rooms. “If they can ac­tu­ally en­joy wait­ing with us, our cus­tomers are go­ing to get a bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence, quicker de­liv­ery,” Wade says.

“I see a big move to­wards de­liv­ery – don’t fight it, just go with it!” he says, an­i­mat­edly, con­demn­ing com­pa­nies that refuse to move with the times.

What Wem­b­ley ob­vi­ously ben­e­fits from is a reg­u­lar stream of pass­ing trade – fans trav­el­ling to and from the sta­dium. There are events on 150 days of the year, and as a re­sult, the new Box­park will be com­pletely en­closed in or­der to en­sure that it can be used all-year round.

“Our hope is to cre­ate the best fan­zone ex­pe­ri­ence in Europe,” Wade says, am­bi­tiously. “It’s not about turn­ing up just be­fore the game, but turn­ing up a cou­ple of hours early and we’ll show the high­lights of the game from last week.”

While Wade’s out­look is pos­i­tive, it’s dif­fi­cult to dis­guise the fact that in Croy­don, he’s strug­gled to get peo­ple through the doors. “It’s a more chal­leng­ing mar­ket,” he ad­mits, sagely. “The dif­fer­ence is that in Shored­itch, all we have to do is at­tract peo­ple who are al­ready here. Whereas in Croy­don we’ve got to get the peo­ple there.”

Box­park’s ac­counts for the year to April 2017, the last fig­ures that are avail­able, don’t in­clude profit and loss fig­ures. But what they do show is Box­park owed around £2.5m to cred­i­tors, more than the value of its net as­sets, and had £1.3m in li­a­bil­i­ties.

The Croy­don park lost £500,000 in its first six months of trad­ing. But Wade in­sists that the com­pany never ex­pected to make profit im­me­di­ately. “We’re in this for the long term,” he says.

But what could pre­vent Box­park from go­ing the same way as so many restau­rants this year? Wade is scorn­ful of the way that some brands have, in his view, over­ex­panded.

“Re­ally frankly, I think that there’s been an ex­plo­sion of ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists that have in­vested in busi­nesses and one of the root causes [of the trou­ble in the ca­sual din­ing sec­tor] has been the re­quire­ment of the ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists to grow that busi­ness from day one, to go from a two store chain to a 50 store chain,” he says, with in­creas­ing an­noy­ance.

In the fi­nan­cial year end­ing April 2018, Box­park is ex­pected to make sales of around twice what it made in the pre­vi­ous year, show­ing that the ven­ture is at least mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion.

Wade dis­misses the idea that the parks are lit­tle more than a pass­ing fad, buoyed by young peo­ple with dis­pos­able in­comes but with­out a long-term fu­ture. Box­park is do­ing some­thing rad­i­cal, he claims, and is ex­pand­ing at a sus­tain­able rate.

“I’ll be hon­est, I think the world of re­tail de­vel­op­ment needs some f------- shak­ing up,” he says. “It’s run from a fi­nances per­spec­tive – peo­ple are only con­cerned about yields.”

Wade has plans to grow the busi­ness to 12 sites by 2023: an­other one in Lon­don and eight in re­gional cities. He wants to tar­get in­ter­na­tional mar­kets too, but through a li­cence ar­range­ment, al­low­ing peo­ple who know lo­cal mar­kets to take the project on.

“And then I’ll go off into the sun­set. That’s enough – I’m knack­ered,” he says, laugh­ing.

If Box­park is to con­tinue draw­ing peo­ple through the doors it is go­ing to need to stay one step ahead of the com­pe­ti­tion. So what’s the next big thing?

“You have to be cau­tious about go­ing af­ter the next big thing,” Wade says. “Two years ago we were hear­ing it was go­ing to be all about burg­ers and now we have loads of burger com­pa­nies go­ing bust.

“The thing is to start small and see what does well. It isn’t al­ways the thing you ex­pect.”

‘Al­most as an af­ter­thought we said “oh let’s do a bit of food and drink”, but that’s the bit that ex­ploded’

The Shored­itch Box­park opened in 2011, just ahead of the Lon­don Olympic Games, but it was the food of­fer­ing that re­ally took off. Left, Box­park chief ex­ec­u­tive Roger Wade

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