Although it doesn't have any big guns or transform into a tank, if you mistook this cherry-red maritime shipping crate in Montreal's Old Port for a futuristic robot you wouldn't be far off.
Powered by two rooftop solar panels, in only 90 seconds every morning this slickly decorated steel box unfolds its walls and two shady awnings to create a 28-seat terrace. Then it's up and running: a largely self-sustaining, portable gourmet seafood restaurant.
It's called Müvbox, and since launching in early June it's rocketed around the globe via design blogs and websites. The response has bowled over its creator, Daniel Noiseux, founder of Montreal's Pizzaiolle restaurant chain.
"I'm trying hard to keep my head," he says. "Venture capitalists from Geneva called three times this week, and we've had interest from Greece, Asia, and one e-mail from Russia simply said, 'I want 100 units, how much!?'"
The buzz, Mr. Noiseux suspects, is because his creation marks combined evolutions in street food, portable real estate and sustainable design.
Although similar in size to a chip wagon, every day Müvbox's fully enclosed kitchen offers up local Quebecois delicacies such as Iles de la Madeleine lobster, clam chowder and foie gras.
But Müvbox is essentially a prototype. Mr. Noiseux's intention is to sell units customized to the needs of entrepreneurs and businesses, be it a mobile restaurant, retail or demo space. "Say, if a local chef wanted to run a mini-restaurant close to Toronto Film Festival events," he says.
A base unit costs $150,000 and has mechanized walls, flooring made from recycled tires, ecologically friendly lighting and solar panels. Then it's ready to be tricked out by Mr. Noiseux's crack team of designers and architects.
To create Müvbox, Mr. Noiseux approached Montreal design studio Sid Lee, which worked on branding, market research and the company website, then brought in architects from Ædifica who came up with solutions for folding walls and sourced environmentally conscious materials. It took 18 months of collaboration, but now Mr. Noiseux says one unit can be built in six to eight weeks.
Each shipping container is recycled from one of more than 700,000 discarded annually in North America.
Sustainable design is a large part of Müvbox's mission. "The base unit is 100 per cent self-sufficient," Mr. Noiseux says, "but I aim to take every finished unit off the grid in the next five years." Right now solar panels provide almost 40 per cent of Müvbox's energy, and customers can choose from among many cost-saving green options, he says.
Connected to this idea of self-sufficiency is the fact that "a container is all about mobility," Mr. Noiseux explains. Müvbox can be operated for a season, then packed up and stored without a trace. But how receptive will cities be to these steel boxes dotting the urban landscape?
In Montreal you won't find a single chip truck or hot dog stand because of a near total ban on street food dating from the 1960s. Müvbox has sidestepped these rules since the quays of the Old Port are managed federally.
What the city does allow, however, is for vendors to set up during such events as Jazz Fest or Just For Laughs. "Müvbox answers a question nobody asked," Mr. Noiseux says, "and opens the way for the city to reconsider the rules."
If it's a question of hygiene this gourmet restaurant exceeds expectations. Its kitchen offers meals made with fresh local ingredients, from its lobster right down to its cheese and ice cream.
Since Toronto's new street-food program brought ethnic treats to its sidewalks this summer, Mr. Noiseux has had his eye on the paved plaza of the Sugar Beach project near the foot of Jarvis Street. A new urban space like this would be the perfect place to set up shop, he says.
For now, Mr. Noiseux is closing a deal on the first three units, which he's glad will remain close to home in Quebec City and Montreal.
This fall he plans to take the demo unit on the road to trade shows in Chicago and Cologne.
"In the short term we're set on growing locally," he says, "but this box was meant to go around the world."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Müvbox is shown folding up at the end of the day in these photos: