Shipping Containers Define Community Food Halls In Southern California

Shipping containers for building materials may have only begun to gain popularity in the last decade, but they have been used for trans-oceanic transport of goods since World War II. This is when the standardization of steel shipping containers for intermodal transport evolved, dramatically reducing the cost of goods, movement costs, and supporting the post-war boom in international trade. Recently, the implementation of shipping containers as an affordable, permanent building material has spread nationwide for residential and commercial applications. During this same time, shopping habits in the United States have also evolved. Immediately after World War II, shopping, dining and entertainment typically occurred on main streets and downtowns that served everyday consumer needs. These traditional shopping venues lost their allure with changing demographics, suburbanization, and the advent of the mall and later the food court (first introduced in 1974), which encouraged customers to stay longer with the hope of ultimately purchasing more merchandise.

A curated mix of food vendors includes independent owner/operators that prioritize authenticity, creativity, and quality with a wide variety of choice among food options... The community food hall experience is social as well as culinary.

The Roost, Downtown Santa Ana

However over the last 15 years, the appeal of many malls has been fading. Many can no longer find anchor or inline tenant replacements as many retailers close. This is due to the increase of online purchasing and the growing interest in local, independent, and crafted products. With the decline of malls has also come the decline of food courts. A key national development is the renewal of historic markets (Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, Grand Central Market in DTLA, and Pike Place Market in Seattle) and in the opening of new facilities such as Eataly in West Los Angeles and the Packing House, 4th Street Market, and Pacific City in Orange County.

Food halls have thrived even as conventional mall food courts with generic national brands have faltered because of their response to the fundamental shift in how consumers—particularly millennial consumers—eat, drink, and gather.

The food hall, unlike the food court, offers visitors a unique experience that cannot be found anywhere else. With the success of large market halls in affluent urban areas, a smaller community scaled food hall is evolving and finding relevance in overlooked neighborhoods sometimes considered both food and beverage “deserts.” Simultaneously with a decades-long trade imbalance, Southern California has become a convenient storage yard for shipping containers, opening up a new opportunity for the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry. This new building trend has brought with it a second life for shipping containers, utilizing them to house these small scale food venues at an affordable rate, costing only $2,500-$3,000 per container. Though containers are by no means new to the public, their cost, speed to assemble, and flexibility continue to make them attractive alternatives to conventional construction.

The following are several recent community scaled projects that have helped define this shipping container trend:

The Roost, Downtown Santa Ana

The Roost, comprised of a collection of pre-war buildings, an abandoned filling station, barn, and duplex, was renovated in late 2015 into an eclectic mix of shops, hospitality, and housing. The Roost features a dynamic mix of structures, including three repurposed shipping containers, a renovated craftsman bungalow duplex, a 1920’s commercial building, and a reinvented two story barn. Shipping containers are used to serve as a bar and restaurant for Knife & Glass and are artfully arranged creating a central beer garden and outdoor dining experience. The Roost is considered to be one of the first shipping container projects in Orange County and attracts the local community, as well as visitors from across the region, serving as a public living room for the vibrant Santa Ana community.

The SteelCraft concept, which opened in Long Beach in late 2016, solely leverages shipping containers for gathering, drinking and eating. Born out of the desire to see people come together over sustainable high quality food and drinks, SteelCraft unites local eateries with an outdoor urban communal dining space. It occupies 5,000 SF and is comprised of 8 tenants ranging from food, dessert, and beer. This development attracts a wide demographic: at-home parents with children, seniors, and the business crowd during the day to working families and a younger crowd at night. The development is dog and child friendly and has a small stage for entertainment venues.

Since the launch of SteelCraft in Long Beach, close to a dozen other cities have approached the owners to pinpoint new potential sites for future SteelCraft developments. Cities are beginning to see this prototype as a tool for imminent economic revitalization and two new locations are already scheduled for completion this summer in Bellflower and Garden Grove.

SteelCraft, Garden Grove, CA

SteelCraft, Bellflower, CA

SteelCraft Garden Grove will be downtown on a 20,000 SF site and will include a second level of containers to accommodate companies looking for creative office space. A working organic farm will be included for growing the best varieties of crops, suited for this climate of coastal desert, harvested by chefs operating the restaurants. The farm lot will also be leased out for special events, such as birthdays and weddings. Another area adjacent to the farm will accommodate rotating food trucks and temporary kitchens for visiting chefs. For additional entertainment, one container will accommodate numerous pin ball machines and a bike kitchen will be available to riders using the new bike path nearby. The bike kitchen will allow cyclists to store bikes securely and will have tools available for tune-ups, including an air compressor. A pre-fabricated structure will provide shade and relate to the City’s agrarian past. As the SteelCraft brand expands to other locations, the need to balance a consistent identity via the use of containers while responding to the local community is being carefully crafted.

SteelCraft Bellflower will be located on a 15,000 SF site to accommodate a beer hall under a barn structure. The project design evokes the city’s strong dairy roots and includes a large performance stage and vertical surface to project movies on. Located in the heart of the city’s downtown, this SteelCraft location will become a key anchor that will promote future private investment in the area. The food venue will expand to include wine and various dessert offerings.

SteelCraft unites local eateries with an outdoor urban communal dining space.

Leisuretown, Anaheim, CA

Leisuretown, a collection of existing buildings comprising of a historic home, warehouse, and auto garage, is being developed near the Anaheim Packing House by LAB Holdings LLC. Their mission weaves community, culture, commerce, and consciousness into real estate innovation and placemaking. One operator, Modern Times Brewery, will lease the entire site. The house will be converted into a sit down restaurant, the warehouse into a brewery/bar that overlooks a new swimming pool, and the garages into quick serve food venues. Two levels of shipping containers define a courtyard and will provide other food and seating opportunities.

The implementation of shipping containers as an affordable, permanent building material has spread nationwide for residential and commercial applications.

All of these community-scaled food halls share similar characteristics, including the incorporation of shipping containers to help define spaces with an emphasis on food and beverage. A curated mix of food vendors includes independent owner/operators that prioritize authenticity, creativity, and quality with a wide variety of choice among food options. Common areas are informal but thoughtfully designed and include innovative and flexible seating arrangements to accommodate dogs and children. Many free amenities valued by users include WIFI, performance/event spaces, public programming, and community initiatives that may include sustainability and the arts.

The community food hall experience is social as well as culinary: evolving, unlike conventional mall food courts. All of the projects highlighted above focus on assisting new restaurant entrepreneurs to set down their roots in a supportive environment. These projects assist cities with traditional downtowns clamoring for a community food hall experience to help activate the area, increase tax revenue, and create a sense of place. Half a century ago, locally grown items were easily available to communities but declined due to the disruption of malls and food courts. However, new, unique, and many times local food and beverage opportunities are coming back full cycle thanks to the use of shipping containers which energize these traditional shopping locations.