Great Shipping Container Restaurants Start with Great Mobile Kitchen Design


This post was originally published 1/19/2015. Due to its popularity, it was updated with new information on 2/7/2018.


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.


Location, Location, 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, we start with your needs and build from there.

Each detail of the location is integrated into the design. For instance, is the container going to be up against a wall? Or is it going to be just as open in the back as it is in the front? Is it going to be closed or will the walls fold down? With this information, we can decide on the best locations for windows, customer interaction points, and other design elements.


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 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.


Think about your Layout

A conventional restaurant kitchen can be set up in a zig-zag pattern. Excuse the highly technical jargon. 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 hammer out a step-by-step process, which will help determine the layout and how equipment is placed.

Here’s an example: you walk in the door. On your left, all the sinks are located along the back wall. At the end, you turn the corner to the fryer and cooktop, which are positioned right beside the refrigerator. Instead of having to grab cold goods at one end of the container and carry them back, you can just grab and go. This will save you from bumping into your prep cook. Everything is streamlined and purpose-built.

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, from both functional and budget perspectives.


And for Dessert…Regulations & Coding

No restaurant experience is complete without regulations and requirements. Some aspects to consider:


  1. Materials- 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.
  2. Electrical Systems- These must comply with applicable codes—and they must be able to handle your power load. If you add a blender to the kitchen, for example, you want to know it’s not going to overwhelm the system.
  3. Water Supply- 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 an infrastructure in place to support it. You’ll also need filling and pumping capability to keep you in compliance.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.

Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, our clients find that they cannot meet all these coding requirements. While we cannot circumvent codes and regulations, there are options for you to avoid additional costs including hoods and water supply. 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 act as a concession, rather than a full-blown kitchen. Boxman Studios can help you look at the pros and cons of each option and make the best decision for your restaurant.


Anything that you can put into a building, you can put into a container. Understanding your objectives is always the first step. From there, we can reverse engineer and create a mobile kitchen design that meets your needs and satisfy your customers’ appetites. See one of our solutions for Chick-Fil-A’s mobile drive-through.