Restaurants think outside the box … about the box

Shipping containers, trailer vans roll into the ATL dining scene

It used to be that a shipping container was used for just that — shipping stuff. Shipping containers employed at a restaurant — or as a restaurant? Not so much.

Yet restaurant owners around Atlanta are thinking outside the box as they get creative with big metal boxes. Shipping containers are being converted into kitchens, bars and even connected like life-sized jigsaw puzzle pieces to form stand-alone restaurants, complete with seating.

Building a Bar on a Budget

Drive past Ponce City Market in Midtown and, instead of looking south at an old Sears warehouse transformed into a bustling food hall, turn your head to the north side of Ponce de Leon Avenue, to 8Arm and the white shipping container rigged up as its bar.

Back in late 2015, 8Arm partners Nhan Le, Skip Engelbrecht, Jeff Jurgena and now deceased chef Angus Brown purchased a used, rust orange-colored shipping container for all of $1,400, then went to work to transform it into a bar.

“We did all the fabricating: welding, design, electrical, plumbing,” said Le.

Design-wise, some might call the bar “hip,” others, a study in sustainability, what with its marble counter yanked from Lusca (their now defunct dining concept in Buckhead) and the wood on the bar top hailing from a bowling alley.

Le might just call it “cheap.” “It’s all about budget,” he said.

While the structure itself was an inexpensive purchase, the project was labor intensive. Construction took a month from start to finish before the bar debuted in February 2016, some six months after doors first opened to the brick-and-mortar portion of 8Arm.

Cost was the primary reason why 8Arm owners took the shipping container route, but Le cited another: transportability. “I wanted something that I can take with us” in the event that the restaurant should ever close, he explained.

Fast Food Innovations

The 8Arm owners purchased their metal box from container service company Jenco Sales in Newnan, Ga. It just so happens that Newnan is also the site for a one-of-a-kind shipping container restaurant: a Chick-fil-A.

The Chick-fil-A Newnan Dwarf House at 505 Highway 34 E is 24 years old and in the midst of a facelift. But rather than shut down during construction, which began in late March, Chick-fil-A built a temporary restaurant adjacent to the site. It is fashioned from five shipping containers, is the first unit of its kind for Chick-fil-A, and is revolutionizing numerous aspects of the Eat Mor Chickn business.

Assembled in just six days by Boxman Studios of Charlotte, North Carolina, the drive-thru only restaurant is fashioned out of four interconnected shipping containers. A fifth container sits atop, bearing the company's red and white signage. Inside are all the work stations needed to turn out essential Chick-fil-A menu items, dubbed "hero products," since the limited space requires a menu limited to about 40 percent of the normal Chick-fil-A carte.

The temporary restaurant will be disassembled on July 14, with the new-and-improved, 180-seat Dwarf House reopening around August 31 (and a grand reopening, complete with the traditional camp-out that nets 100 lucky people a year's worth of free food).

While Chick-fil-A Newnan Dwarf House store operator Randy Burguss, as well as Chick-fil-A innovation and new ventures consultant Luke Pipkin, will be happy to see the Dwarf House re-open, they are pleased with what the container restaurant allowed them to do.

By not closing during construction, Burguss was able to retain more than half of his 200 employees. Folks in Newnan with a hankering for Chick-fil-A could still get their fill. And the streamlined design, with a centerline kitchen similar to that in most newer Chick-fil-As, proved highly efficient for Burguss’ team.

“There are certainly great learnings from the Chick-fil-A in Newnan that we hope to apply down the road,” Pipkin said.

He also noted the time-saving benefit of the modular building style. “It can take four to six months to build a restaurant on site. If you do a shipping container restaurant, the time to being open to guests is a lot quicker.”

The shipping containers are headed to Rome, Georgia next, destined to serve as a temporary restaurant when the Dwarf House in that city gets remodeled. They will be put to use for at least the next four years, since the company plans to rebuild numerous Dwarf Houses. While the assembly and installation for the Newnan location took six days, Burguss said that the goal is to whittle down assembly to just two days.

Dine in, Container-box Style 

The Chick-fil-A temp restaurant does not allow for sit-down dining. But that will be a possibility when Mike Rabb opens Tren Loco opens amid the eateries of downtown Hapeville at the end of the year.

The mortar is barely set at Corner Tavern, which Rabb just relocated to Hapeville from neighboring East Point, yet he will soon move on to the crazy project of Tren Loco, a taqueria next to Corner Tavern on North Central Avenue. The plan: turn four shipping containers into a restaurant complete with a kitchen, bar and seating.

How did Rabb concoct that idea? It started with conversations with his wife, Melanie.

“It’s something my wife and I talked about a lot,” Rabb said. “In Hapeville, they are using shipping containers for art studios. In designing the taqueria, we thought, let’s do the shipping containers we’ve been talking about. It will match what the city is doing.”

“Aside from aesthetics, for a taqueria, it made sense. I can prefab it with the openings and doorways that I want,” he said.

In this case, that means doorways that lead to seating in two of the four shipping containers, one an 8-by-40-foot-long container, the other an 8-by-20-footer. Those will be connected by a breezeway, and the entire restaurant will be shaped like a U with a patio that offers outdoor seating.

Besides the flexibility of design, Rabb, like 8Arm owners, was attracted to shipping containers because of the price. “It’s a lot cheaper than building a building,” he said.

And, like Chick-fil-A, Rabb sees Tren Loco as a bit of a litmus test. “It is kind of a trial for me to see if I can build a franchise-able restaurant.” The idea: to drop off a ready-to-go restaurant to a franchisee who would choose between three to six storage containers for his or her Tren Loco, depending on the budget.

A Moving Van-turned-Kitchen

While finances, portability, flexibility and sustainability factor into each of these restaurants-in-a-container projects, it's exciting to see the innovations unfold. Which brings us to Bluetop, a restaurant opening in a matter of weeks at 5362 Peachtree Road in the antique row section of Chamblee.

Bluetop is a project by Matt Marcus, previously the executive chef at Portofino, and his business partner Andy Lasky. The restaurant will serve fast-casual American fare (Think: Maine lobster corn dogs, a couple renditions of a sloppy Joe) along with an oyster program of raw and grilled bi-valves. Marcus also will be an early adapter of the new Kudu grill, inspired by the South African grilling method known as braai.

But where to cook all of that? A 1969 Global Van Lines moving van retrofitted as a kitchen. Lasky inherited the van when he purchased the strip center down the street that houses Rust N’ Dust Antiques. It was just sitting there on the back lot, collecting dust. They paid $500 to move the 9-by-40-foot trailer to the Bluetop locale, another $300 to remove the fifth wheel and axles so that it would sit flat, and another $1,500 to position it in its final resting place on the south side of the building.

Then they went to work, giving it new life as a kitchen. Some utilities run underneath the trailer in a crawl space. Above, they dropped in lighting and added insulation. Really, the kitchen looks like the majority of restaurant kitchens: Decked out with appliances, perhaps a culinary toy or two, but certainly tight on space.

“The difficult part,” Marcus said, “is that it’s a battle for inches.”

Big metal boxes might be in vogue right now, but some things never change.