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The Globe and Mail

Forget food trucks: Why shipping containers are the hot new restaurant trend

Owner Simon Sobolewski calls out a customers name at Red Fish Blue Fish, an up-cycled cargo container and outdoor waterfront eatery on Wharf Street in Victoria.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

There's a curious back story to one of Victoria's most popular fish and chips restaurants. It all started in the early 2000s when a Hummer travelled from Southeast Asia to Vancouver in a shipping crate. Once it had been unloaded, the crate sat in a depot for several years until it was purchased by a clever restaurateur and dropped onto a Victoria pier. The buyers cut portholes in the sides, painted it a vibrant orange and blue and installed kitchen equipment.

The Ocean Wise-certified restaurant called Red Fish Blue Fish opened on Victoria's Inner Harbour in the Hummer crate in 2007. It's become the new model of restaurant – boxes usually reserved for schlepping big-ticket items across the ocean are now the hottest spots to grab a meal. More permanent than a pop-up stall or food truck, similar venues are becoming common in Canada from Montreal to Victoria, and internationally – one sits under the Eiffel Tower in Paris, another in New York's Times Square. They hit home with younger generations who feel they want to contribute to businesses making sustainable efforts. Serving meals out of a pre-used, decade-old container is a trend that offers delicious food served up with a side of activism.

Food trucks are the shipping-container restaurant's closest relative. But shipping containers offer a more stable location, plus a little more space and four walls without investing in an expensive building. It's a smart way for restaurateurs to get into the business cheaply and to tap into food trends quickly. The novelty can pull in crowds but, should the chosen location not draw much business, the container can be picked up and relocated.

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"What we did was change the use of it," said Simon Sobolewski, co-owner of Red Fish Blue Fish, which whips up lunches of fish tacos and "cod dogs" for local workers. "We kept it exactly the same, all we did was cut some holes in it, so instead of having a Hummer inside, it's got kitchen equipment." But the opening was a couple of years overdue as the team had to, as Sobolewski says, "jump through hoops" to get the restaurant approved.

"They didn't understand what it was," he said, referring to the city of Victoria. When he tried to open a second one in Langford, B.C., he was turned down flat because the city couldn't understand why they "wanted to open up a restaurant in a dumpster."

Nevertheless, there are often lineups on the Victoria pier during lunch hours – it's listed as a must-see destination on the Lonely Planet website.

Guillaume Noiseux is the founder of Muvbox, a company that opened its first box in 2009 in Montreal. It outfits shipping containers with kitchens and unfolding walls (seating is outdoors). "When it's closed, it's seamless and it still looks like a container, and you can basically dress it up any way you want," Noiseux said. "Then when it's open, it's a fully working restaurant."

Muvbox owns two of its own boxes in Montreal – Lobster Roll and Porchetta – and has sold containers to companies around the world; the boxes at the Eiffel Tower and in Times Square are theirs, as well as four in Toronto. Muvbox offers two models – an 8-by-10-foot box, or an 8-by-20 box. An empty smaller box starts at around $30,000. Adding electrical and other equipment to a larger container can rack up a cost of more than $120,000.

Jim Bailey, formerly president of Red Bull Canada, and Michael Sullivan, a Toronto restaurateur, worked with Muvbox to open Common Goods at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre this year. It's a combination of three small restaurants, each in its own box. One offers lobster rolls, the second sells Blue Goose's organic chicken, beef and fish, and the third crate, Sully's Honest Dogs, is Sullivan's baby and sells organic hot dogs inspired by Toronto neighbourhoods (the "Danforth," for example, is topped with tzatziki, olive tapenade, feta, tomato and cucumber).

Also in Toronto, behind the popular Rose and Sons restaurant on Dupont Street, Big Crow is a relaxed, homey, barbecue-centric restaurant based entirely out of one painted, grey shipping container that's been cut in two. Customers sit at picnic tables as trains barrel past; the smell of barbecued meat mixed with smoke in the air and the warm sun on the wood tables combine to create a cottage-like atmosphere.

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"It's very rustic, very country-driven. It is what it is," said Anthony Rose, owner of Rose and Sons and Big Crow, which serves smoked mozzarella and roast garlic bread, generous Miami ribs and cold potato salad topped with mushrooms, mustard seeds, egg and scallions. "The food we do is kind of like fancy road-trip food."

Rose said the move to use shipping containers instead of other buildings was mainly design-based. The crates were the right price and offered the look he wanted. The kitchen, a space no bigger than 100 square feet, holds a three-door refrigerator, shelving, a freezer, a hand sink and a soda fridge.

"It's really simple construction," Rose said. "It's all about what you put in there."

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