Miss out on the food truck craze? Can’t scrape up the rent for a brick and mortar location? It’s time you explored the world of shipping container restaurants, quickly becoming the darlings of hip foodies and even-hipper architects worldwide.
When new, metal shipping containers in the standard 40-foot-long, 10-foot-high configuration cost between $1,500 and $2,000. But thanks to the U.S trade deficit, you can buy used containers for a song. This country currently imports more goods than it exports, with an awful lot of those imports arriving from foreign countries in containers that aren’t going back. If you’re located near a working port or big-time bulk freight terminal, you may be able to acquire all the containers you want for a price just slightly over their value at scrap.
Containers aren’t worth much to shippers right now, but a handful of restaurant owners are finding them a low-cost and, because they are recycled from their previous function, environmentally friendly option for start-up restaurants. Shipping container restaurants now operate in many countries. Some restaurants have ultra-cool designs, others offer no more than bare bones functionality.
All a restaurant operator needs to get going is a business permit, a piece of raw land that provides power and utility hook-ups and a little sweat equity to transform the container into a no-frills restaurant. If you’re looking for a low-cost way to get into the restaurant business, perhaps in a nontraditional location, this is it. One big advantage: You can open a container restaurant in a hurry because no construction is required.
The highest-profile container restaurant going right now is Singapore Takeout, a decidedly big-budget affair. It’s a traveling eatery that is roving the world (nine cities in the next 12 months) to promote the cuisine of Singapore and the country’s Singapore International Culinary Exchange event. Singapore Takeout has already finished its run in London and is serving in Paris from June 30-July 2. After this, it will be transported to Moscow, New York, Hong Kong and beyond.
Singapore Takeout is basically a portable kitchen. After being hauled to its location, one of the 20-foot container’s walls folds down. The interior holds a battery of chefs working away to produce tasty dishes for the walk-up clientele. The container might be small, but this is definitely a big-budget take on the container restaurant concept.
They’re using containers on a more permanent basis in Austin, TX. The town already has a pair of nifty single-unit container restaurants—La Boite Café and Sushi Box—but will soon witness the debut of Container Bar, an extravaganza featuring ten 40’ by 10’ containers.
Austin architect Jay Knowles’ design stacks and arrays these containers to form a courtyard that comes complete with a stage for live musical acts. Knowles managed to fit 24 seats plus bathrooms in each of the air-conditioned units. Owner Bridget Dunlap operates three other bars on the same street, so she knows what works in this condo-laden corner of Austin.
So far, containers have proven to be cheap, durable and easy to modify into imaginative restaurant spaces. They enable prospective restaurateurs to shop for advantageous sites that don’t happen to have an existing building on them. Whether you hope to tap into the pop-up restaurant trend, want to start something more permanent or are looking for a way to get famous fast in your town’s food hierarchy, containers could be for you. The early adopters of food trucks did well for themselves; container restaurant pioneers just might be next.