REVIEW: Pop Brixton

Pic by Mark Muldoon
Pic by Mark Muldoon

Mark Muldoon went to Pop Brixton on the opening weekend and reviews it for us here

So what is Pop Brixton? Definitely not a new Boxpark, the owners are very keen to argue that. Pop Brixton offers food, drink, shopping, and creative/events space. It’s a ‘pioneering new space in the heart of Brixton’ according to the fluffy official website blurb. And indeed, what could be more pioneering than recycling shipping containers into a new creative retail environment? These are clearly unchartered waters London finds itself in, not comparable to, say, that time in 2011 when Boxpark opened a new creative retail environment made from recycled shipping containers in Shoreditch. Or when The Artworks opened, offering ‘a new creative hub of street food & drink, local, creative & media businesses’ in recycled shipping containers in Elephant & Castle. Or even Boxpark Croydon, which touts its ‘vibrant commercial, retail and leisure destination’ made from – we are promised – recycled shipping containers. A harsh critic may be tempted to suggest that the only genuinely pioneering thing about Pop Brixton is how insistent the owners are that it not be called the new Boxpark. The rest of us, meanwhile, should probably consider the repercussions of this new world of Boxparks we live in. This is England’s path now. Gothic – Renaissance – Brutalism – Boxparks.

Boxpark Brixton – sorry, Pop Brixton – opened 5pm, Friday May 29, perfectly timed for the end of office hours, and perfectly situated between my office and the pub. I was only too happy, therefore, to fit in a visit on my way between the two. The official Twitter account had other ideas however, screaming an IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT that due to what I’d personally describe as not-exactly-monsoon levels of rain earlier in the day, the complex would be opening an hour later instead.  We return instead hours later, not really realising that it’s already 11:50pm. You can only imagine our dismay as we found the party already over for the night.

The next day provides a whole new opportunity for adventuring in Pop Brixton. Their Twitter account helpfully advises they are opening at 9am. Then rather confusingly it changes its mind to 6pm. Then it has another change of heart and plumps for 2pm. Then 4pm. Then 2pm again until it eventually settles on a sixth-time-lucky opening hour of 4pm. Arriving, it’s apparent that if they are experiencing teething problems, a lack of customers isn’t one of them – the place is heaving. By 5pm, queues have formed for the women’s toilets. One wonders how they’ll cope by 10pm. This is the late twenties/early thirties Brixtonite set out in force. You’re never sure with such a crowd – many could of course have got Übers here from Clapham, but today everybody seems to be of quite tolerable nature, so you’d have to assume not.

It’s worth, at this point, looking into possible reasons why Pop Brixton may be considered a Commendable Community Project. In fact, it seems one can offer up a list: 200 new jobs in Brixton; Lambeth Council are providing the land at no cost; Pop are paying staff the living wage as well as ‘encouraging’ their tenants to do the same (I’m sure negotiations probably aren’t too tough, but let’s revel in the small victories); tenants have to volunteer an hour a week sharing skills with Brixton residents and businesses; there’s a training and events space available to locals for free; 85% of traders have at least at some point been based in Lambeth; twelve (living wage, again) apprentices from Lambeth College are helping build the thing; and there’s a tangible feeling that even at this early stage it’s a tightly-knit, good natured group of small traders.

Those small businesses that are relatively established are paying £800-2,500 rent a month, which is still quite a lot for small businesses, as this publication has pointed out in its front page story this month. Pop Brixton would reply that these rents will subsidise the 50%-or-less rents being offered to 8-10 new startups. But as we’ve already learned, Lambeth Council is giving Pop Brixton this enormous prime retail location for free. So, isn’t that enough to subsidise the startups? Maybe you can recall 2009, when Brixton started along its long course of regeneration/gentrification. Traders were offered vacant units in Brixton Village for free for three months, so why are startups paying up to 50% of the market value of rent, when Pop Brixton aren’t themselves paying any?

It’s interesting to wonder if Boxpark will birth any gifts to the larger world, like how Brixton Village gave us Honest Burger and Franco Manca. Does Brixton need more places for food and drink though? Pop Brixton argues ‘yes’. It calls to mind the ancient law that if somebody feels the need to state why something isn’t an issue, you might take it as an indicator to start considering whether or not it is an issue. Pop Brixton say that they will draw additional people to Brixton, and that the new outlets will complement those already established.

It’s an undeniably pretty place to linger. Furnishings are rough ply-wood – bound to give somebody a splinter at some point. There are many food options, of course. Pachos (£6) from Baba G’s are the highlight of opening weekend – nachos swapped for mini popadoms and covered in mint cumin raitha, coriander salsa, chilli pickles and fresh mango pulp. I ask a bystander to choose between never getting to eat Pachos or nachos ever again. She firmly says she’s coming out to bat for Team Pachos. And she’s absolutely right.

Elsewhere, at Donostia Social Club,a chorizo & piquillo peppers pintxo (small Spanish snack, all £3) doesn’t bring much invention to the table but works because of chorizo’s obvious infallibility as an ingredient in any sandwich ever. Their braised Iberico pork cheek with butter bean purée & herb oil falls just short of being memorable. The Jollof Spiced Fried Chicken from Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen has a wonderful texture – knobbly and extra crunchy, like a savoury Toffee Crisp bar. As a result, the relative lack of flavour (and under-supply of shito mayo) was upsetting. Miss P’s BBQ may be better off skipped for now, as they don’t start offering their well-regarded cajan catfish option for another week. If, meanwhile, the multiple outlets of spice have all become a bit much for you, head for Yumitub, where they might make some of their winningly creamy Bailey’s ice cream to order, right in front of your eyes.

pop brixton
Pic by Mark Muldoon

The number of food markets in Brixton is now accelerating at an insane pace. We make a third and final trip to Pop Brixton (like any epic, this has three acts – drunk, hungover, drinking again) on Saturday evening. There was no need to be concerned about the impending toilet crisis: the complex is actually noticeably quieter than during the day. There was also time to take stock and see how Brixton’s other food markets are holding up: Brixton Village was rammed as ever. Brixton Night Market in Windrush Square was almost at the point you’d describe as ‘steady business’ (you’ll have to let me know if their blisteringly loud DJ booth was putting you off too). Just a few weeks old itself, Granville Market Space (opposite Fish, Wings & Tings on Coldharbour Lane) felt like an unintentionally low-key affair.

As we leave late on Saturday evening, I get a splinter. It’s not enough to stop me recommending that you pay Pop Brixton a visit, though. I’d like to let you know what time they’re opening, but I’m afraid you’re on your own there.
Mark Muldoon is on Twitter, and Instagram



  1. […] If this all feels a little more corporate than your ideal vision of Brixton, then you may have to force a smile for some time yet: alongside the Blues Kitchen and Phonox, we also had the opening of the Brazilian chain Cabana last month, and next weekend it’s the opening of Caribbean chain Turtle Bay (with a whopping £800,000 investment in the branch). Seemingly, we’ve hit a new era of corporate investment in Brixton. Is it because rents are now too high for independents? Is the most a local business can hope for now a six month stint in Pop Brixton? […]

  2. I’ve been to Pop at least half a dozen times over the last few weeks as it’s far too easy to…Pop in and grab a bite of what I find to be a delicious range of food options that are reasonably priced. Miss Ps Catfish did indeed arrive and didn’t disappoint my seasoned southern taste buds and I honestly haven’t disliked anything I’ve eaten. I hav really enjoyed Donostia, the Ramen place with the delicious Gyoza, Zoe”s Ghanaian, and the chips at the upstyled fish and chips shop are ridiculously good along with their exotic fish flavourings (jerk, colombian, etc).

    I think the question of value, benefit is answered now as it’s been busy most every late aft eve, is absolutely rocking thurs thru sat and ALL the tenants I’be spoken to love being there and the general idea. Something about being able to wander without hassle or charge into a local gathering spot that doesn’t smell like a pub, has a good range of drink and food options, feels community oriented but has plenty of room for dancing and partying regardless of your age…is good, very good . I wonder if that feeling that apparently many others share is justification enough?

  3. “Pop Brixton would reply that these rents will subsidise the 50%-or-less rents being offered to 8-10 new startups. But as we’ve already learned, Lambeth Council is giving Pop Brixton this enormous prime retail location for free. So, isn’t that enough to subsidise the startups?”

    The council is not giving the land entirely for free. They are putting in the land, Pop are putting in the £1,500,000 required to build. Profits (if and when they come) are being split 50/50 between Pop and Lambeth (according to Pop manager Castaign). If the projects gets into profit, presumably the council can offer further subsidies if they think necessary.

    The other important factor is that the project at least needs to break even (why would an investor put money into a temporary project knowing they are going to loose it?) – but they only have a very limited guaranteed lease on the site (planning is for 5 years but the lease is much less). So it needs to break even in two years. Any financial investment needs to be recovered in that period.

    Lastly, bear in mind that when the project finally comes to an end, Pop (the business) will have negligible intrinsic financial value. All of Pop’s financial return to its investors will have to come from the rent whilst it is operational – there is little capital value. The land, however, will have (almost certainly) increased in value. Lambeth are sitting pretty (which is surely a good thing).

    • Yep. Free land does not equal no cost or expected return. I’d also argue that totally free rent, even for a period, does not actually help local business in the long run. If you are serious about your business and sustaining, you need to be able to pay ‘something’ to call yourself truly ready for what is not an easy ride in any situation.

  4. I went down there, on the opening Saturday. Good atmosphere, lots of different people and tasty food.

    This is a bollocks review.. Stop writing, you are shit at it.

  5. This comes across as bitter, jaded and elitist. It reeks of laziness and a self-important attitude which seems out of place for the Brixton Blog.

  6. I could not get in; I was holding a small bottle of orange juice, it was not allowed to take in drinks. Just a warning for others in case they might not be aware of same.

  7. I was sceptical when I first heard about it and went down to the opening and have been back a couple of times to find that it is not just attracting weekend hipsters. A lot of ‘ordinary’ locals are dropping by out of curiosity and I think they’ll be back. It is such a well considered space and clearly a construction work in progress. My only concern is that as more units are opened that they are matched with more general seating /meeting areas and walkways as the units are not really big enough to accommodate customers. Also one communal refrigeration container provided by POP landlord for the drinks retailers and food sellers might increase their supply levels and profits. – and ability to pay their considerable rents

  8. I went to Pop last weekend. The street style food was average, and the place was full of drunken locals looking for somewhere to urinate.

    Perhaps worth a visit especially when they get some good restaurants opening, here is hoping.

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