THE RISE OF THE SHIPPING CONTAINER.
COULD A SHIPPING CONTAINER WORK FOR YOUR NEXT CAFE CONCEPT?
Once the preserve of the most creative operators, shipping containers are now a firmly established cafe concept, popping up around the country in a wide range of guises, from modest take-away to an entire shopping mall. In this article, we explore some of the benefits and considerations of a shipping container cafe, highlight some fantastic examples of containers in action, and feature a lockdown success story - Tinbox in Dublin.
Check out our case study on Tinbox coffee, Dublin, below.
DASH container in Phoenix Park, Dublin has exploded in popularity. The team behind it describes themeselves as "a modern concept for a bunch of like-minded people who are living an active, healthy lifestyle, are passionate about quality coffee and enjoy the occasional treat." The park is certainly a perfect location for plenty of footfall and the offering has gone down extremely well with the locals.
Boxpark in East London was the world's first container shopping mall & dining destination back in 2011. Fast forward a decade, with 3 venues at iconic locations, Boxpark has become a massively popular food, culture and social hub in London, with local communities at its heart.
Pizza restaurant chain @pizza plans to use ‘semi permanent’ restaurant units situated in high traffic density suburban car parks to drive growth. They have plans for a franchise roll-out across the UK and have crowdfunded over £1miilion during COVID to launch a portable drive-through container restaurant in Edinburgh.
SHIPPING CONTAINERS: WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION?
There are a great many reasons for considering a shipping container:
LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION The non-permanent nature of containers may offer a little bit more flexibility when it comes to finding a cracking location or securing planning permission. The last decade has seen containers appearing in shopping mall car parks, pedestrianised streets and areas of urban regeneration.
SPEED Relevant permission granted, and all the services at the ready, a container can theoretically be installed and operational in a matter of days. No drawn out lease negotiations with landlords, no arduous waiting-list for builders, no construction delays due to inclement weather, no endless snagging. If quick and simple is for you, a shipping container could be the asnwer.
COST A container MAY be more cost-effective to set up and run than conventional premises. A lot of research and benchmarking is needed of course, but do it right and you could be looking at a highly lucrative investment. The team at @pizza believes the setup cost of their container outlet is just 30% of that of a regular pizza restaurant.
FLEXIBILITY Using semi-permanent containers reduces the business risk of setting up on un-tested sites, allows flexibility to move with footfall over time, and lets you avoid restrictions associated with leasing premises.
Containers can hold a substantial amount of kit, setting them apart from smaller coffee carts and vans. With a single container, it's not unreasonable to have two espresso machines in a container firing out 800 coffees a day, if the footfall so requires. Add several together, like Boxpark in London, and you can create your own shopping mall or dining destination.
Who doesn't love the raw appearance of corrugated metal or the finesse of cutting-edge architectural cladding? Containers are bold, brilliant statements that can be designed to work in any given setting. a touch of graffiti amidst urban regeneration, or adornment of plant-life at the edge of a park, a container can quickly fit in (or stand out) in any setting.
ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT Taking a discarded heap of metal and repurposing it feels a whole lot more sustainable than sourcing brand-new raw materials. Depending on the transportation process, the setup of a shipping container cafe offers the potential for a much-reduced carbon footprint than building from scratch.
There are of course a huge number of considerations to make before embarking on such an adventure, but researched thoroughly and executed well, a shipping container cafe offers serious opportunity to reach untapped footfall, gain creative satisfaction, and make a substantial profit.
CASE STUDY: TINBOX COFFEE, DUBLIN
TINBOX Coffee in Ashtown, Dublin was launched on the site of the family-owned Halfway House pub & restaurant during lockdown. We asked co-owner and inspiration behind TINBOX, Aaron Treacy, to tell us the story behind his success:
How did the TINBOX concept come about? It all started with a vision of a kiosk to catch the heavy passing foot traffic while our pub and restaurant were closed. In the run-up to the pandemic, I had really started to get more interested in coffee. Our coffee at the pub had been good, but I had started to want more. I wanted to fine-tune it. So with TINBOX I had the perfect opportunity.
How easy was it to set up a container? I designed the container and had a team build it to spec. It all went well apart from a delay with windows which set us back about 2 weeks. (The blame was placed partly on the Suez canal blockage and partly on BREXIT). It took about eight weeks all in.
You seem to be enjoying great success. How many hot drinks do you sell on average each day? On average 400, though every day is different. On a great Saturday might serve up 600 drinks. We have a team of 7 now, with a maximum of four on at any one time.
How would you explain your success? Footfall aside, I drilled into the team about the importance of customer service. There is always a warm welcome, a greeting and a conversation. We know our customers names, we even know their dogs’ names. The team is also fully trained in coffee quality to maintain consistently high standards. If its not right we throw it away. We are also very happy with our coffee – Elevator tastes great and people have commented on it being organic.
It also helps that we are open 7 days a week from 7am to 7pm to capture every sales opportunity. Come 7am there is always a queue building for coffee and nobody else is serving yet. About 15%-20% of our total business is driven by the first hour and a half we are open. How has your concept evolved during the pandemic? I saw how passionate people could be about their coffee and knew I needed something to enhance our offer. We recently added Blak Nektar as a guest speciality coffee and people love it. They ask for Stowaway, they talk about coffee with our baristas. It’s a whole new game for me, but I can certainly see the demand. Where do your product ideas come from? Our customer base is very broad and we to try and suit lots of different tastes. We share and consider ideas as a team. If a customer asks for something we’ll get it in and try it out. One week after opening we added chai on request, matcha came the next week. We now sell kombucha and we’ve seen growing interest in iced coffees and cold brew. We also introduced a chef to the team and he has been experimenting with new products such as Suki Tea ice lollies.
I also keep an eye on international trends on social media. Australia was always the frontrunner for coffee innovation, but I am seeing a lot of great stuff coming out of the States now. I follow a lot of coffee shops in Portland and Seattle. I saw the passion and skill of the baristas there during several visits a few years back and it really stuck with me.
What impact did the easing of lockdown have on the business? Initially, I was worried that it might tail off, but I didn’t need to be concerned. We have a convenient location with lots of passing footfall and a car park for anyone who wants to pull up and grab a coffee quickly too. Dog walkers, people on the school run and commuters on the way to work all continue to stop by. Combined with our reputation we are in a great position.
In general, I think people in the area are increasingly supporting the independent café and the bar has been raised on what people expect. We have certainly hit our numbers. What’s next for TINBOX Our next project is to sell coffee and kit online and to take TINBOX nationwide through e-commerce. We are also considering take-away coffee subscriptions.
What advice do you have for anyone else setting up their first coffee container? Don’t overthink it. At the start, I worried about everything. But ultimately if the coffee tastes good, you’ll be alright.
I also know I can rely on my suppliers to help me. My coffee sales rep Gavin calls all the time with advice and ideas and I get technical support straight away when I need it. I know he has my back.