Meet the traders: Saif Bonar and Leoni Descartes from Matthew’s Yard

Outside the flagship North End Road venue of Matthew’s Yard. Pic: Matthew’s Yard.

As life returns to normality, it is important not to forget one of the key mantras adopted over the pandemic: supporting local. One such product of this outlook is Matthew’s Yard, a Croydon-based café run by Saif Bonar, 41, and Leoni Descartes, 30. Both from south London, the couple currently live in central Croydon.

Bonar was inspired to open the original Surrey Street business out of the destruction left by the Croydon riots in 2011, Descartes says: “He thought it would be great for something nice to come out of all this horrible, awful stuff that’s happened – that helped Croydon to be a positive place.” The venue was originally envisioned as a coffee shop with a functional workspace, a framework that was novel to the borough: “Especially for local people, we didn’t have anything nice for ourselves really. There was nothing like it at the time.”

After only a few weeks, Descartes made a name for herself at Matthew’s Yard: “They used to call me the coconut latte girl.” Her input led to a more varied menu, with Descartes joining as a staff member shortly afterward: “They got coconut syrup, and I was like ‘Woah, my coffee habit’s kind of out of control – I need to work in a coffee shop!’”

Residents of the borough appreciated the new concept, with the venue soon becoming a multi-purpose space for the people of Croydon: “Because it wasn’t anywhere near finished, you could just do anything with it, provided there was a market for it.”

Variety is evident in the Surrey Street branch. The site has paid host to yoga classes, art galleries and theatrical performances over the years: “We’re very much shaped by what people want. So if something’s not working, we stop doing it. If there’s demand for something, and there’s a gap, then we think we should be the ones to fill it. So we’re very quick to pivot.”

Leoni Descartes (left) and Saif Bonar (right), owners of Matthew’s Yard. Pic: Matthew’s Yard.

The surrounding community soon became integral to Matthew’s Yard when Descartes and Bonar toyed with running the business as a concession model: “To keep people excited, something has to constantly happen. And for me and Saif, if it was just on us to come up with all the ideas. In ten years, we would be pretty exhausted.” The theatre space, live music venue and café were all run by independent companies, while Croydon’s very own Brgr&Beer ran the food and drink side: “It was a very good test. It meant me and Saif got to take our hands off the business for a bit, and see how it was working and where it could be improved.”

With news of the original venue site’s demolition arriving in December 2017, Brgr&Beer looked to house their business elsewhere. This provided Bonar and Descartes with the chance to embrace the concept of a vegetarian menu: “We thought, ‘Let’s use this as an opportunity rather than being sad about it.’”

Croydon-based businesses The Vegan Grill and Follow both subsequently found a home serving food in Matthew’s Yard, slowly promoting the vegan selection that the menu holds currently. Today, the café produces its food in-house, proudly offering dishes that even the most dedicated carnivores will enjoy: “As a vegetarian, sometimes I would have something and think that it wasn’t the best version it could be. We wanted to make it so that people who do eat meat wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”

The overhauled menu was finally given the attention it deserved in August 2020, with the formal opening of the new flagship venue on North End road. A space next to the original Surrey Street venue was also acquired to accommodate the workspace aspect of the brand.

A selection of the vegan bites available at Matthew’s Yard. Source: Instagram.

Bonar and Descartes have always been quick to thank the local community for their support in the relocation process: “When people normally run a business and something goes wrong, you just close and that’s it. You don’t shout about it, you don’t pick apart what actually is causing this to happen and you’re gone. The only reason we’re here is because of the community, and the people that supported us. But if someone doesn’t say they need help, then no one can help.”

As a further example of Croydon’s support, last January saw Bonar and Descartes receiving funds through local donations to update their ageing coffee machine and point of sale systems: “It’s about giving people that opportunity to participate and be part of the solution. If it weren’t for doing that so many times, then we definitely wouldn’t be here.”

Having transitioned from a company to a non-profit community, Descartes maintains that while her and Bonar still need to pay the bills, the memories of the space are what moulds it: “The bits that we love about Matthew’s Yard are the experiences. The memories. The people that sell their artwork for the first time, and seeing people grow and change. Those are the bits that make us. This is why it’s survived.”

The restaurant and café branch of Matthew’s Yard is on 166 North End, CR0 1UF. More information and bookings can be found on their website.

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