Lounging in a low sofa in a dark corner, from a distance you could mistake him for a teenager. But the fact is, the place we're in only exists because of Saif Bonar.
Wearing casual, loose-fitting jeans and a grey striped jumper, he looks a little like the stereotype of the 'tech startup guy'. With curly hair, a beard flecked with white, Saif is a quarter Jordanian, but listening to his distinctly south London cadence, you would never know. He has a serious, almost slightly melancholy way about him.
Considering what the man has been through in the last 12 months, this is entirely understandable.
Asked about the rise (and near fall) of Matthew's Yard, the building we find ourselves in, he quips: "There was no idea or plan to be perfectly honest."
The house that Saif built
Named after George Matthews, who owned the site in the 1870s, Matthew's Yard in Croydon's has been described as a lot of things. Incorporating aspects of co-working hub, Clerkenwell-style coffee shop, theatre, bar and art gallery; it's described on its website as "a cafe, workspace for early stage start-ups, gallery showcasing the work of local artists and a studio theatre offering a varied schedule of theatre, film, comedy, live music and community events".
But it's more than that — it's also a bar in the evenings, Croydon Radio’s headquarters, a gathering place for countless community groups, a retail space, and home to two food pop-ups: BRGR & BEER (craft beer and ‘home made’ burgers) and Rise & Shine (eclectic teas, filter coffees and baked goods).
Saif and the people at Matthew's Yard have done a lot for the various creative communities of Croydon over the last few years. In turn, these communities have given a lot back.
He describes what he has created as an "ecosystem", but remains humble. "People say lots of nice things about what we've done, but if we hadn't, I think someone else would have come along and done something similar," he says.
All of it has come at a price: years of financial uncertainty, near bankruptcy and a mental breakdown are all things that Saif has had to put up with so far. Thankfully, and after a rethink of Matthew's Yard's business model, the future of the venue finally seems to be on a more secure footing.
Welcome to Croydon...
Saif found himself in Croydon in 2008, having bought a house there with his then girlfriend. Not sold on the joys of his new home town, Saif would find himself spending most of his free time in central London, Shoreditch and Clapham Junction. At the time, he worked from home and wanted to get out of the house more.
"I looked for a workspace in Croydon but all there were were the unexciting, expensive Regis type, setups," he remembers. "The original pipe dream was top notch coffee, proper cakes and a workspace."
Seeing the potential in the growing trend for remote work, and the increasing number of tech people based in Croydon, the budding entrepreneur "thought about it and talked about it", but didn't find himself doing much else.
All that changed on the night of the 2011 riots. Out in a pub in Crystal Palace, Saif watched some of the worst of what people were capable of. But he later witnessed the community pulling together in ways that he never expected.
"I thought to myself maybe it's not the shithole that people say it is. Maybe there's a community and people who give a damn."
It seemed like the perfect time to make his dream reality. "The attention of the world was on Croydon. I thought 'if there's any time to do it then this is a good time'."
The search begins
Coming to a decision to ‘do’ Matthew's Yard at 6am on the morning after the riots (while standing at the devastated site near Reeves Corner), Saif started looking for the right space. By the end of September he was getting frustrated by the search. "All the central properties were owned by large corporate landlords and two agencies who were the gatekeepers," he says, frustratedly. "The big landlords didn't wanna to talk to me, the little guy. It was impossible."
Via a mutual acquaintance he met Paul Collins, a man some call the ‘unofficial mayor of Croydon’. Paul knew of a promising space in a promising location and offered to show it to Saif "if he was serious".
Entering via a stairwell (the front had been boarded up for decades) Saif saw the potential in the space immediately...
In days past, the building was variously things, a brewery, a retail space and a prison. There is a network of subterranean, now blocked up tunnels quite literally connected to it's penal past.
The last time the site had been 'properly' used was 1984 as the now long defunct Caters supermarket. The site of Matthew's Yard is the former goods loading area.
The place was piled up with more than two decades of detritus, but Said had to start somewhere, originally wanting to call the place ‘CR0Tech’, he began work in late December 2011.
On 21 April 2012, it was ready to open, but things didn't quite go to plan. A week before opening there was "no bar, no toilets, no coffee machine, and half the floor was unfinished”. Thanks to a little last minute help and a GLE loan, Saif managed to hit his launch deadline. The bill came to around £200,000.
The evolution of the plan
Matthew's Yard started with just £5,000 capital and no marketing budget. Every time some money came in from Saif's 'day job' he'd pile the majority into Matthew's Yard, spending it on renovations and kitting the place out as it went along. Word of mouth spread and what the venue 'did' quickly changed.
Quite soon people started coming in asking to do all sorts of different kinds of things. "I said yes to most things — so when someone came in said they'd like 60 people to do a theatre event, I thought that'd be 60 people who might tell a friend about us. We never planned to have an alcohol licence, and never planned to do anything with art.”
Saif kept continued ‘saying yes’ and by October the approach had changed completely. Matthew’s Yard had an alcohol licence, theatre productions, a menu, an art gallery and open mic nights.
Though The Yard’s reputation continued to grow, finances were a problem from day one. Everything hit a low point in December 2014.
After a series of bad turns, Saif was unable to service MY’s six figure debt, or pay his staff. This was, as he describes, his lowest point — when he considered both declaring bankrupcy and even taking his life.
Thankfully, Saif did neither. "Many asked me why I kept going. Yeah, if it were just Barclays I owed, I would have folded in a heartbeat. But with £40,000 of local people’s money? And all those unpaid wages too? I couldn’t let them down."
The crisis forced Matthew’s Yard to change business model to the ‘concessions’ style that it operates now. Saif describes the current setup as ‘turnkey’ — he handles all the management of the space and allows MY’s various concessions to focus on what they do best.
And it's worked. He seems slightly amused: "To be honest, I had no idea it would work as well as it has. I just hoped it would be enough to get us out of the slump," he admits.
Now it's crowdfunding to take on another 5,000sq ft next door. And for the first time since launch, Saif is no longer freaking out about MY’s money problems.
Asked about what's next, Saif gives what might be a fatalistic smile. "I've given up planning beyond the next quarter for now. I find it really hard to put a finger on what Matthew's Yard is these days. I think the whole thing has been a trial, and it's still not finished. For me, it will never be finished. If it was, what would I do?”
So what's the eventual secret to survival (and success?), Saif ponders a moment. "Flexibility and putting in the hours. You always have to adapt and be looking to fill some void. If you stop, it’s no longer special, it’s just run of the mill."
Whatever the future holds, people are hoping that Matthew’s Yard sticks around. It certainly ‘fill a void’ and Croydon would miss them if it was gone.
By Jack Oughton
Matthew's Yard, 1 Matthews Yard, Off Surrey Street, Croydon, CR0 1FF.