Why would anyone want to look back at 2020? You would be forgiven for asking, we were tempted not to bother ourselves. But between the tears and tiers, we have lots to be thankful for from the year gone by.
We started the year in tears, being given notice to vacate the original MY premises to allow demolition work to start and we ended it in tiers, with a new home sitting empty and only able to serve coffee through a hole in the wall, but in between, we had lots to be thankful for and between January and December, we packed a lot in.
With a lease almost signed for a new premises, it was time to draw a line in the sand and move forward with a new Matthews Yard, so when our landlord asked us to waive our notice period and leave early we agreed and began preparing to wind down operations and move out. We held a yard sale to get rid of furniture and other bits and pieces we couldn’t take with us, booked lots of skips for the junk which had accumulated over the years and hosted a modest last minute closing party before handing back the keys, ready for a new chapter to begin.
The fight to save Matthews Yard was exhausting, but necessary. Without a fight and without support from the local community, leaving any earlier would have almost certainly been the end. Waiting until we found new premises and agreed a new lease with a new non-profit structure was imperative.
With a 7 year lease on the former Maplin premises next to West Croydon Station signed in late February, we were positive about the future and saw huge potential in our new home. We set to work stripping out the old retail shelving and suspended ceiling tiles and quickly discovered beneath the veneer of excessive Maplin branding and rickety shelving, the space was a bit of a disaster.
It was an electrical death trap, including shutters which had live power running through them! The floorboards and joists at the rear of the premises were rotten and needed to be replaced and the roof, walls and windows were all letting water in. Beneath three layers of lino and hardboard we found the original floorboards, solid oak tongue and groove and we set about restoring them.
We worked through the lockdown with a small, socially distanced team and continued throughout the Spring and Summer. We sank everything we could muster into transforming the space. Our team worked hard to bring in more light, open it up and make it shine, while giving it a true Matthews Yard vibe. We couldn’t have been happier with the result when we opened the downstairs area in September and the finish was perfectly complemented by the bold mural kindly donated by local artist, Alec Saunders.
When we finally opened the cafe area of the new premises it was on a reduced schedule. With an all vegan menu and with our new chef Molly on board, we continued our journey into veganism. We were blown away by the support of old regulars and our morale was boosted by the volume of passing trade and new customers we were seeing, even in the midst of a pandemic.
By early October we were confident enough in the readiness of the space and the state of the pandemic to host our official launch party. An intimate, socially distanced, ticket only event which included a three course meal and a fabulous live jazz set by the acclaimed local musician and creative goddess, Gill Manly.
When the issue of funding for free school meals during the November half term erupted we, together with our supporters, stepped up to help feed local children. While many offered packed lunches for collection, we wanted to enable those who may not otherwise have been able, to experience the full dining out experience and make positive memories. We raised almost £1,000 for the free school meals promo and have ringfenced the unused portion to continue to provide dining experiences for disadvantaged local people in 2021.
Towards the end of the year which we all know ended in tiers we reluctantly went live on Uber Eats and Deliveroo and launched our own delivery service. Being live on all the popular platforms has given us access to some new customers, while also giving existing customers more convenience when choosing how to order.
In December, we got excited for the end of the 2nd national lockdown and geared up for a festive bonanza, only to have those hopes dashed a few weeks later with Tier 2 becoming tier 3, and then tier 4. We used the down time to experiment with expanding our product lines into gifts and made our own vegan candles which quickly sold out. Watch this space for more news on that front as we will be expanding our range of home and beauty products in 2021 under the “Relax” element of our brand.
Aside from all the ups and downs, or opens and closes of the new West Croydon premises, we also had to focus on our Creative workspace in Exchange Square. On Friday 13th March, a new 10 year lease was signed and with that milestone came £10,000 of funding from the GLA and Croydon Council as part of the Creative Enterprise Zone programme.
The space was almost fully occupied and was set to provide surplus revenues which could be used to support the new community space at West Croydon in its early days. One week after signing the new lease, the country went into its first lockdown and people were instructed to work from home where possible. By the end of March the workspace had lost the first of many businesses based there.
By the end of October more than 70% of customers had left or given notice. Rent arrears were building and the future was looking bleak. Thankfully we were able to tap into a bounce back loan and received two grants from Croydon Council as part of the COVID relief programme which allowed us to provide reduced fees to the creatives in the space in the early peak of the pandemic and minimise rent and service charge arrears in the premises. We now look forward to repopulating the space with local creatives in the near future.
All things considered, we have had a better year than many in 2020 and while the workspace has been devastated by the pandemic, there are signs for a very bright future in West Croydon. The foundations have been laid to support that as soon as the tier system is behind us.
As ever, we are eternally grateful to everyone who has helped us get this far, our friends and family, our dedicated team, our customers and supporters and in 2020, for the first time, a number of major organisations who stepped up to provide vital support including The Co-op community fund, Croydon Council, The GLA and Mayor of London’s Office and our new landlord, The Arch Company.
Thank you Croydon, for making 2020 as survivable as you possibly could. Here’s hoping 2021 is kinder to us all, Happy New Year.