Craig Baker posted photos of orange, turquoise, and pink shipping containers on Instagram to promote publicity for his food hall in downtown Indianapolis. They may seem strange to promote a grocery store and culinary incubator, but the steel boxes piqued the curiosity of the locals.
"They're very similar to Legos, aren't they?" Mr Baker, an entrepreneur and chef, said about the shipping containers at the AMP, a craft market and former supply garage where vendors sell PB&J sandwiches, Ethiopian cold brew coffee, and chocolate-covered strawberries covered with edible glitter.
"We're building our own little village in a huge garage," he said of the 40,000-square-foot space, which also includes a full-service restaurant, open-air bar, community prep kitchen, and stage. "People want to see what you've built."
Shipping containers have been heralded as a trend in home decor where they are used for modular homes, but they are also convincing commercial planners who have used them to liven up the bars, cafes and restaurants within developments anchored by food halls. In industrial areas or port cities, the containers give projects a sense of community, which is vital in a pandemic when retailers and restaurants close their doors.
However, the shipping containers also pose challenges for developers, including indoor customization and safety for guests and staff during a pandemic.
Most food halls rely on shipping containers to populate the stalls, but some also use them as canvas for art installations or as common areas. As the grocery halls proliferate, builders are adopting a pioneering design to stand out from the pack and avoid a sterile cafeteria.
“Grocery halls are a dozen these days; Lots of them do exactly the same thing, ”said David Weitz, co-founder of Carpe Real Estate Partners, who this month opened Oasis, a food and entertainment center built on the site of a former marine engine repair company in Miami's artistic Wynwood neighborhood. Six yellow, pink, and lavender shipping containers are used to sell bao rolls and gyros, while 16 more make up a 75-foot high central tower bar, painted in the same colors by Spanish artist Antonyo Marest.
The Oasis is one of a dozen grocery halls that use shipping containers and one of several to open this year along with AMP in Indianapolis and BLVD MRKT near Los Angeles. The United States has 242 food halls, a jump from 222 at the start of the pandemic, and cities have relied on their creative concepts and communal dining spaces to revitalize dormant neighborhoods. At least 190 more are in the works, according to a report from Cushman & Wakefield.
The trend began in 2013 with Downtown Container Park, a project conceived by Tony Hsieh, Zappos' CEO who passed away last November. The development, which was central to the revitalization of downtown Las Vegas worth $ 350 million, inspired other developers like Barney Santos, who after seven years of planning, will open BLVD MRKT in the predominantly Latin American neighborhood of Montebello this summer.
"I remember seeing the container park and feeling so inspired by the design," said Santos of the development in Las Vegas. "I wanted to recreate that experience in my neighborhood to do something that no one would expect."
Developers like Mr Santos said using shipping containers is more of a design choice than a cost-saving one. Used shipping containers cost $ 2,000 to $ 3,000, but builders must expect five times that amount to add windows, doors, support structures, and kitchen and other equipment to pass local health inspections. This makes the cost comparable to installing normal food stands.
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For business owners, opening a grocery stand in a shipping container means they can add flourishing accents to personalize their space. In many indoor dining rooms, the stalls often look the same apart from a few differences in the signage. "The creativity that opens up is the strangest," said Baker, the AMP's project manager. "You give them a canvas and say," Look, this is your place. What do you do with it? "
That was in line with Joanna Wilson, the owner of an AMP dessert shop, Punkin’s Pies. Ms. Wilson picked colors that matched her brand, adding black and white floors and awnings to the pink shipping container, as well as a sparkling chandelier that shines like her glittering strawberries.
The semi-enclosed space also allows her to stow most of her kitchen equipment. "I try to make it look dainty and neat," said Ms. Wilson. "I don't like showing off my fridge, microwave, and kitchen area."
The design choice makes sense in large port cities like Long Beach, California, where developer Howard CDM built SteelCraft, one of the earlier incarnations of a shipping container restaurant.
"Shipping containers are everywhere in Long Beach," said Kimberly Gros, founder of SteelCraft, which operates two other Southern California locations at Garden Grove and Bellflower. "So we thought we were going to create a structure that is different and that is really connected to us."
The reuse of materials appeals to many consumers from both an ecological and an aesthetic point of view. "I think if you take an item and undermine its original intent and create a whole new use for that item, it's always interesting," said Erik Rutter, co-founder of Carpe Real Estate Partners.
In interiors like the AMP, light shades enliven an otherwise gray room and at the same time preserve an industrial feel. "The color palette for the containers is really popping," said Mr. Baker.
However, there are some limitations to the use of shipping containers in food-centric destinations. Some developers recommend sticking to outdoor applications to avoid complex retrofitting. In an outdoor environment, furnace ventilation can be done directly from the furnace hood through the roof, which is the most common setting. However, with a food hall at the base of a 50-story building, the process becomes more complicated because the vent may need to be 50 stories higher, Carpe's Weitz said.
Most developers have sticked to outdoor use, but some food halls in the Midwest, such as AMP, Detroit Shipping Company, and Parlor Food Hall in Kansas City, Missouri, have placed them indoors. Design experts say the key is to stick to indoor bakeries and other light cooking applications rather than a store that requires a deep fryer, for example. Because of this, the AMP used shipping containers for companies with limited cooking needs and conventional stands for those who needed more, said John Albrecht, director of the DKGR architectural firm that designed the AMP.
Dealing with the pandemic is also more of a challenge for indoor food halls, where diners often compete for coveted spots. Most have pushed take-out and delivery services and reconfigured their seating to allow social distancing, said Phil Colicchio, co-head of the Cushman & Wakefield food and beverage advisory group.
But perhaps the biggest fight for developing containers to be guided by ships is to stay more open. "The concern is that the more you walk this path, the more similar the rooms are," said Trip Schneck, also co-head of the food and beverage group at Cushman & Wakefield.
Expect shipping containers to continue to develop, especially as cities identify more industrial areas in need of revitalization. But it won't be long before architects identify the next big thing, said Martin D. Howard, president of Howard CDM.
"Brilliant thinkers and creative minds will find other ways to make it interesting for people to come out, eat and drink and have a good time," he said.