This story originally appeared on page 86 of the Spring 2015 issue.
Story by Cassie Kaye
The next big trend in the restaurant industry isn’t catering to locavores or serving smaller “sharing” portions. The new face of eating comes wrapped in a 320-square- foot steel box — the same one that’s used to carry big-screen TVs and Nikes from one side of the world to the other.
Using former shipping containers for businesses isn’t anything new, but now, more restaurateurs are turning to these steel confines when finding spaces to house their eateries. Blame it on the 30-percent rise in recycling practices in as many years, or the fact that land to build on is getting harder to come by; regardless of what you attribute it to, the climate is right for the surge in popularity of these shipping container restaurants across the United States.
There are approximately 17 million steel, intermodal shipping containers in the world at any given time, and 16,000 enter the United States every day—that’s nearly six million a year. Most of them are emptied and then reused; but when they become too expensive to ship as empties or surpass their useful life expectancy, they often remain in ports and rail yards, unused and abandoned.
“The sustainability aspect was a huge reason for using it,” explains Matt Bolus, chef of The 404 Kitchen in Nashville, Tenn., whose main dining room is housed in a former shipping container. “There are thousands of these things, and they have a 7-to-9-year life expectancy before they’re deemed unusable and stacked up somewhere.” Bolus also notes that people in Nashville know where they’re located, simply because the big, orange shipping container is hard to miss. As is the color theory shades of The Container Bar in Austin, Texas.
Delia Champion, owner of Delia’s Chicken Sausage Stand in Atlanta, acknowledges a similar reaction at their Westside haunt. “Everyone knows the chicken place with the shipping container on the roof,” she jokes. Champion added a repurposed container on top of her second location to create more seating for customers. After its success, she sees the crates as an obvious choice for expanding her business. “It’s industrial and memorable,” Champion says. “I love the idea of repurposing something, and building an entire restaurant in the container is a great way to utilize temporary spaces because you can just pick it up and move it when you need to.”
Even outside of the South, portability is admittedly what draws many restaurant owners to build in these vessels. Robyn Sue Fisher, founder of Smitten Ice Cream in San Francisco, created her first brick- and-mortar location out of a 40-foot-long shipping container. “We split it into two equal halves, and use the rear as our prep kitchen and the front as our service area,” she explains. “We loved the idea that when our lease runs up, we can just pick up our shop with a crane and move it.”
Made of corrugated weathering steel with a standard plywood floor, these structures are about as bare bones as they come. In order to be used for other purposes, they have to be fitted with insulation, plumbing and wiring, and for restaurants, there’s a whole slew of requirements in order to meet health codes and safety standards.
The material itself carries a bit of a blessing and a curse. “They’re durable and meant to be outside,” says Champion of the benefits to working with a giant steel box. “They can take a beating, whereas wood or sheetrock won’t stand up in the elements. It’s low maintenance, which is great.” But Fisher notes the downside of the containers: “We’re a little exposed to the elements. It can be a bit of an oven inside when it’s hot outside, and an icebox when it’s not.”
Predictably, size is another limitation to creating an entire restaurant, or even part of one, out of a shipping container. These containers are typically 8-feet wide, 8 1⁄2-feet tall and either 20- or 40-feet long. “It’s definitely tricky,” admits Kristen Muraro, marketing manager at Ska Brewing Company in Durango, Colo., which is home to The Container Restaurant. “We had to figure out how to fit everything you’d find in a kitchen, plus we had to make sure we had the proper sprinklers and everything was up to code. It gets a bit tight sometimes with all the equipment and people working in there.”
Although the narrow fit presents a challenge, the containers themselves are incredibly versatile. They can be cut, welded and stacked almost any way imaginable. Which is why when space becomes an issue, many restaurants, like The Container Restaurant and Delia’s, choose to build up instead of out. And while the outside appearance can’t be modified much, the inside can be completely transformed to reflect any desired atmosphere. Muraro calls The Container Restaurant an educational piece. “People think it’s unique and creative, and I get calls all the time from people who have been inspired to do similar projects.”
As with all changes, this one started slow with pop-up shops and temporary structures, but has since gained momentum with container parks and has now found its way into the restaurant industry. This building trend may come and go, but it’s safe to say that using something old to create something new is one tendency that, like an old shipping container, can stand the test of time.