Great Shipping Container Restaurants Start with Mobile Kitchen Design
March 7, 2019
How do you design a kitchen in a big steel box? The same way you design any building or interior: with your goals and objectives top of mind. What do you need it to do for you? What do you want to accomplish? Admittedly, mobile kitchen design is more challenging when you have 320 square feet to work with instead of 2,000, but where there’s a will—and great sushi, falafels, or burgers—there’s always a way.
In this blog post, we’re exploring the process for designing container restaurants at a high level, with links to more specific answers. Because this post has valuable information, we consider it a live document and will be updating and adding to the content regularly.
We’ll be covering:
Which Kinds of Restaurants work well in Shipping Containers?
Also known as a bar, these containers usually do not serve food. Instead, they utilize the limited room for kegerators, soda machines, beer coolers, glasses, and a few bartenders. Shark Wake Park is a perfect example of a well-utilized shipping container bar. These structures are more about customer interactions than preparing the finest ingredients, and you don’t have to worry about expensive, bulky kitchen equipment.
These simple set-ups are ideal for festivals, games, concerts, and other events. They usually consist of pre-packaged food and drink. The equipment list will be limited and typically will have a cooler, point of sale, and low-profile equipment like popcorn machines or hotdog roasters. One of our favorite examples is our work with CIM Group. They partnered with us to help Charlotte’s Epicenter to provide simple, prepared dishes during the annual Taste of Charlotte event. No items are cooked or prepped inside the container. Instead, it is simply used as a distribution point.
This kind of kitchen is popular because you are still able to serve fresh-made food, without the added expense of an industrial oven and hood. With a commissary, all your cooking and food prep is done at a secondary location. So, you’ll only need the tools and equipment necessary to warm and assemble your dishes before serving them to your customer. An established restaurant, for instance, can start a satellite location to appeal to a completely different demographic. Fresh Box at UNM (Link to page) is an excellent example, as they never cook any of their items in the container. Instead, they assemble and sell their dishes from previously prepared ingredients.
The easiest to explain, but the most challenging to implement; full-service restaurants are functionally identical to any other restaurant you’ve visited. They are stand-alone eateries and all food prep, cooking, grilling, frying, and baking are done on-site, inside the container. The amount of equipment and room means you can be much more flexible with your menu and staff, but it also means you’ll be paying a little more for all the bells and whistles.
Why use a Shipping Container instead of stick-building a new location?
If you don’t have enough time
Every week your restaurant isn’t open, you’re losing 2% gross profit. That may sound like a small number, but imagine if your contractor missed the completion date by a month? Two? Three? This happens all the time for a wide range of reasons including weather, change orders, vandalized sites, incorrect estimates… the list goes on. Using shipping containers as the foundation of a build allows you to turn around a restaurant build in half the time of stick and brick construction. So, if your stick and brick builder misses the date by 3 months, that’s a loss of approximately 24% of your annual gross revenue. If you choose our solution, you have the opportunity for an unexpected gain of 24%. Doesn’t sound so small anymore, does it?
If you might want to move around
Shipping containers were originally designed for easy mobility, so naturally, that’s one of the pillars we’re most proud to stand upon. Because all our structures are built inside our facility in Charlotte, everything must be designed to be shipped. How it gets to you is flexible; think trains, planes, rigs, cranes, lifts, elevators and boats. Regardless of the transportation vessel, everything from the layout to the materials used in fine finishes is curated to be shipped. Want to move three feet? Great! Want to move cross-country? We’ve got that too.
If you want to test a new location
Whether you’re the CEO of a micro-chain looking to expand or a real estate developer assessing under-performing assets, there’s no substitute for a good, old-fashioned, low-commitment test. Container restaurants are unbelievably flexible, not only in their ability to be moved, but in their capacity to be customized for a variety of menus, aesthetics, and through-puts. With a testing kitchen in your toolbelt, you’re empowered to make informed decisions using real data.
If access to resources is important to you
Assuming mobility is the kicker for you, you’ve probably considered shipping container restaurants in the same vein as food trucks. Included in their many differences, food trucks have a maximum water supply capacity of 30-gallons. Once your water supply is gone, you must shut down. This will likely result in lost revenue, unhappy customers, and sad employees. With shipping container restaurants, you get mobility and the ability to tie into the existing water supply, allowing you to operate beyond a Food Truck’s standard water capacity.
Common Misconceptions About Shipping Container Restaurants.
Myth: Modular and container kitchens are usually of lower quality.
Truth: Because all of our kitchens are designed to be mobile, we use alternative materials to ensure safe passage and minimal damage to the kitchen’s structure, equipment, and finishes. While our materials are sometimes different than you may be used to working with, they are far from inferior quality.
Myth: They cannot be reused.
Truth: The primary function of purpose-building or modifying containers is to offer our clients ample flexibility to relocate, without hassles. There are an infinite number of reasons a restaurant might need to change locations. Our clients use our mobile solutions for everything from testing new markets to pop-up concessions. We make sure that they can move quickly and easily without damaging their container restaurant.
Myth: Shipping container kitchen fabricators lack a meaningful support system.
Truth: This will depend largely on the vendor you choose. Many of your options will have to outsource one or more elements of the build process (i.e. design & engineering, manufacturing, and logistics). The result is a disjointed communications system, added expenses, and reduced quality of the end-product.
We run our ship a little differently. We take care of everything from the conceptual renderings to the final installation. Working with Boxman Studios means you can look forward to a dedicated project management team, expert designers, and welding professionals that take your projects as seriously as you do.
Myth: Container Kitchens are a low-cost alternative to food trucks or modular restaurants.
Truth: You get what you pay for. If you look hard enough, you’ll be able to find a vendor willing to cut the holes and lay the sheetrock for a much lower price than food trucks or modular restaurants. But, ask anyone who has walked that path, and they’ll tell you that the low budget general contractors end up costing much more in the long-run.
How to Start the Cargotecture Design Process.
Know your Menu
It’s first because it’s a double-whammy. You might have the coolest spot in a 10-mile radius, but if your food is bad, patrons will burn up their gas to get away. Food comes first. Always. So don’t skip over this part just because your dream is to serve oysters out of a shipping container in Charleston.
Knowing what you’re going to cook also means you know what equipment you need, which is harder than it sounds. You want a fryer, for example. Well, there may be 10 different sizes from 20 different manufacturers who make everything from the Ford to the Mercedes of fryers. Understanding what you want to do with the product is essential for budgets and to determine your functional layout.
A conventional restaurant kitchen can be set up in a zig-zag pattern. A server, for instance, can zig to the drink machine, zag to the warming station, and zig again to the service window. When you have a limited footprint, you need to think linear. Figure out exactly what you’ll be preparing and how you’ll be serving it. This allows you to develop a step-by-step process, which will help determine the layout and how equipment is placed.
Know Your Location
Location helps determine the footprint. On a recent project, a client’s restaurant consisted of a 10-foot, 20-foot, and 40-foot container, each with its own functionality. You may need something smaller to suit your location, or you may have even more room to utilize. Either way, there should be special consideration for building codes based on the state where your operation will be located.
Know Your Aesthetic
Some people love the shipping container look, some don’t. That’s okay. Our team of designers and engineers make shipping containers look like palaces, make purpose-built structures look like shipping containers and everything in between. You can be sure, all of them come out looking good enough to eat. Maybe you like the idea of a nomadic restaurant but can’t imagine working out of a food truck. Maybe you want to stay put forever. The level of flexibility that comes with a shipping container restaurant is nothing like any other builder or contractor in the industry.
Designing Container Restaurant Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing
You can prepare anything from hot dogs to haute cuisine in a mobile kitchen. It just takes a little ingenuity because space is at a premium. One of the elements to consider carefully is plumbing. It’s a good idea to install all of the plumbing on one side because it simplifies the design immensely. Let’s say you had some sinks on opposite sides of the kitchen. In this case, you may have to run plumbing all the way around. Streamlining it saves time, money, and—just as importantly—space.
Regulations & Coding
No restaurant experience is complete without regulations and requirements. Some aspects to consider:
Most kitchens must use fiberglass reinforced plywood instead of regular plywood and wash-down rated wall coverings, not just your run-of-the-mill sheetrock and paint.
These must comply with applicable code and handle your power load. If you add a blender to the kitchen you want to know it’s not going to overwhelm the system.
Municipalities are sticklers for this one: you need water and a way to remove it. One option is to connect to the local water service. Another is to use a generator. If you go with the latter, you also must consider fuel requirements and noise. Some restaurants opt to use fresh water and wastewater storage tanks. With this option, you need to think about weight: water weighs 8.3 pounds per gallon. If you’re putting a 200-gallon water tank on top of your unit, you need to have the infrastructure in place to support it. You’ll also need filling and pumping capability for code compliance.
Dimensional ADA Codes-
The restricted dimensions of traditional shipping containers can make these space requirements a challenge. We’ve developed two solutions, to ensure your structure complies. If sustainability is important, we’ve identified low-profile kitchen equipment that allows for the remainder of the space to have ample work area and turn-around points. Or, if you need more space, we’re proficient at constructing containers from the ground up! This gives you more flexibility with your dimensions, and they cost about the same!
Makeup Air and Hoods –
Container restaurant ventilation is designed so that the amount of supply ventilation added to the space is equal to the amount of air exhausted by your hood. Commercial kitchens are required to have a vent hood with fire suppression over your cooking equipment.
When you use a commissary kitchen and completely avoid food preparation, most of the high-cost code items are knocked off your list. For even fewer considerations, provide only pre-packaged items and operate as a concession, rather than a full-blown kitchen.
Special Considerations for Designing Restaurants in Small Spaces (ie. Shipping Containers).
Adjust your menu for equipment and efficiency
When you have tons of space to play, serving a large, complicated menu is a realistic choice. Without room for lots of people and stations, the space will require a much more intentional design with consideration for individual items, how they’re prepared and how they need to be delivered.
If you already have an existing menu, paring down your menu to your most popular and simple items can make a huge difference. If you’re planning a completely new menu, look at back-of-house operations and investigate how technology can boost the accuracy, speed, and consistency of your menu. Could a different size blender make a difference? Could you benefit from reducing the number of cold or frozen ingredients? Ultimately, this is all about making sure you don’t sacrifice quality to fit into a smaller space. Sometimes that requires addition by subtraction. Your restaurant doesn’t have to be all things to all people, but it does need to be consistent and good enough to justify return business. Both of those are more than possible in a small footprint.
Give every inch a purpose
When utilizing a smaller space, it is absolutely imperative to be efficient with your use of every single inch of your real estate. Take inspiration from space innovators, IKEA. Their whole business revolves around squishing everything you need for your home into a very small space. Do your tools need counter space, or is there a way to utilize walls and the ceiling for easy-reaching and increased counter space?
To make the most of every surface, assigning and maintaining stations is important for making these concepts work well. What does your customer need to have a great (albeit small) experience? Every restaurant is different, but knowing what you need and where it fits is part of our service. And we’ve put some amazing kitchens in some incredibly small containers.
Communicate with your customers
When a customer scans the horizon for something delicious to eat, you want them to land on your sign and your restaurant. How do most concepts stand out? Usually extremely large signs. But, when your footprint is small, you can’t always spring for the luxury of oversized signage. Luckily, size isn’t the only thing that matters.
Very often, sending the right message is more important than the biggest or loudest message, and that’s what we encourage our clients to focus on. Choose messaging with relevance, propose, and a call to action. Relocate or eliminate anything that’s not pertinent to your menu, your process, or your brand.
Shipping Container Restaurant Examples.
A single container lunch-focused grab and go concept located in Roosevelt Plaza Park in Downtown Camden, NJ.
A six-container mobile restaurant that Chick-fil-A uses outside of their renovation sites to serve customers and keep their staff employed during construction.
A single container commissary-style burrito joint located on University of New Mexico’s campus.
A two- container Mediterranean restaurant located on Missouri University of Science and Technology’s campus.
6 restaurant and retail containers at Boston’s Innovation and Design Center.
How are Shipping Container Restaurants Priced?
At Boxman Studios, we know that you invest your dollars carefully and expect to see a return. And the first question for most people who contact us is: ‘How much will this cost me?’ But before we can answer that, we need to ask a few questions first. The cost of a shipping container experience varies greatly from project to project, and because we build custom solutions – nothing is absolute. Here are some factors that go into our pricing equation:
Internal Features. We charge an hourly fee for design, which encompasses everything from architectural to engineering services. Time spent in the design department ranges from 3 to 25 hours, depending on the scale and scope of a restaurant.
Mechanical, Electrical & Plumbing Needs. We contract structural and MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) engineers, as well as any other outside consultants, to ensure your branded shipping container meets local code requirements.
Time and Materials. Time and material pricing varies depending on whether we are creating a purpose-built shipping container or manipulating an existing container. We also include all the pieces and parts that will make the final product. Some clients want to see luxury finishes, others opt to keep it simple and maintain an industrial look. The finishes like lighting, cabinetry, tables, and equipment have a huge impact in the overall price of a container restaurant
Custom Shop. Pricing depends on whether you are using our heavy or light fabrication services, custom manufacturing, or our specialty furniture department.
Transportation and Activation. We run our own trucking company to deploy our creations. Some clients require a single point-to-point transport with a single person on-site to activate the container; others need a tour approach with multiple activators. We use our own trucks, providing a driver/activator to transport and facilitate the set-up and takedown of all environments. The scale is contingent on the project.
Campaign Scale and Scope. This encompasses the duration of the campaign, the distance between events, the amount of downtime, and other factors that directly influence price.
Cantina: Ready-to-Go Shipping Container Restaurant Design.
food service model from the performance line, Cantina. This model is the ideal container kitchen for QSR restaurants and line-service concepts.
30’ x 10’ footprint
Vestibule transaction and small dining space option