The rise of the shipping container café

shipping container café

Barista Technology Australia is lowering the entry bar to café ownership with an end-to-end shipping container café solution.

Café ownership is a tough business to get into. It takes time and research to find the right location, huge upfront costs for fit outs and installation, and experience to run the business. 

After all that, it’s even more difficult to make it successful. The café could be in the wrong location or have limited foot traffic, high rent and overhead costs, or it could be struggling to attract the attention of customers.

Brett Bolwell, CEO of Barista Technology Australia, has enjoyed decades of experience in the coffee industry, however, he’s also watched the prohibitive costs of starting a new café put off many baristas looking to branch out on their own.

“Café operators get into the industry, take what looks like a great location, then six to eight months later aren’t making the money they thought they would and are stuck on a three-to-four-year lease,” Brett says.

“If you can reduce setup and investments, remove a large portion of the operating costs, and operate the business more efficiently with the right technology, you’ve got all the right factors for a successful business.”

shipping container café
Shipping containers can be customised in a number of ways, including rooftop seating access.

The coffee van or mobile coffee cart used to serve as a good stepping stone towards traditional café ownership, but even that model comes with drawbacks when it comes to capacity and workflow. Brett says instead, shipping container cafés are becoming a more viable, cheaper, and scalable option.

“The shipping container café is a fully enclosed solution. They don’t have to be moved around like you would a coffee cart, where you also rely on good weather, can’t have people drive up to you, and don’t have the ability to cook inside,” he says.

“A shipping container café is really a kitchen and coffee bar built in the one.” 

Barista Technology Australia offers a complete shipping container café solution, from supplying and customising the container itself to designing and fitting out the latest café equipment with a premium workflow. Brett says there’s been an upsurge in enquiries into shipping container cafés of the last few years, receiving about 30 per day across Barista Technology and its container manufacturing partner in Newcastle.

“With a shipping container pop-up, you’re generally looking at about a third of the cost of opening up a traditional café in a retail environment,” he says.

“Considering the investment in buying one and financing a fully fitted out unit, even with the site rental fees, you’re talking about $1000 per week, and you actually own the container ship café. Most traditional café owners are paying well over that just for their rental space.”

Even from a design point of view, not only do container ship cafés have a trendy, cool look and feel to them, they can be formatted and customised to the needs of the business. “The scope of design is pretty endless,” Brett says.

Barista Technology has designed some shipping container cafés with external cladding, wood, aluminium, and lighting or signage. Others have rooftop access for additional dining, or multiple customer windows so they can deliver coffee from both sides. 

“We are delighted with the design and feel of our timber facade container café. It is exactly what I envisaged,” says Dave Triggermann.

If coffee is going to be the sole focus of someone’s business, Brett will recommend a cosy 10-by-10-foot (about three-by-three-metre) espresso cube where they can pump out coffee fast with no wasted space.

shipping container café
Shipping container cafés are a low-cost and flexible way for someone to step into café ownership.

“The container café we received has really worked for our business. We love serving our customers fresh coffee from our new popup café,” says Bronwyn Seal, who recently purchased her shipping container café from Barista Technology.

If they want wider food service or a unique drive-thru setup, two shipping containers can be paired together for more space and a better configuration. As a business grows and wants to expand its offering, a second shipping container can seamlessly be incorporated to make that happen. 

“The team here are really pleased with our new container café. On the whole, the experience of purchasing the container café was excellent,” says Jarrod Clarke.

The idea of a shipping container café is also catching on with landlords, who see the benefit of placing a small but visible coffee shop in the entryway, carpark, or centre of their business to attract more customers with barista-made coffee.

“There’s a number of different places where a shipping container café is ideal. People have them down by the ocean, inside parks, along the highway, and in large commercial carparks. But the most popular settings have been in industrial areas and commercial sectors,” Brett says.

“Most commercial businesses with strong traffic flow in high volume areas will see the value of having a pop-up café onsite. Whether they’re selling sportwear, electronics, or anything in between, what better way to bring people in with than an operator outside making amazing barista coffee and café food?”

In order to provide an end-to-end solution, Barista Technology Australia is working with real estate companies to identify locations where its customers can place their prospective shipping container cafés. It will also work with individual customers to determine the best equipment and layout based on their budget and ambition. 

“Operators will buy a 20-foot container then not know how to set it up for ideal workflow or make best use of the space. We’ll sit down with them and talk about how to accomplish what they want to achieve,” Brett says.

“It’s going to come down to what the individual operator has in mind, but we envision it with everything working around speed and efficiency. You’re in a confided space that can only comfortably fit in so many people. If you’re pumping out 600 to 800 coffees per day, it’s not going to be very efficient if you don’t use the right equipment or workflow.”

Brett suggests the use of an under-counter espresso machine like the Modbar or Tech-Bar to maximise bench space and automatic accessories like the Puqpress tamper, Perfect Moose milk steamer, and grind-by-weight grinders for peak speed and consistency.

While the shipping container café serves as a great starting point for independent operators, Brett says there’s also been demand from larger chains. They appreciate the portability of the shipping container, and can instal them outside at locations under renovation or during the construction of new sites.

But it’s not just the business that benefits from the shipping container café model. Brett says it responds to a growing demand from consumers for speed and availability.

“If you look at where the volume of coffee is going – take McDonald’s and McCafé for example – it’s out the drive-thru window,” he says.

“Australia has been very lucky when it comes to COVID-19, but we’re not out of the woods yet. People are less excited about the idea of practically sitting on top of each other in a packed café so the need for real estate where people drive in, get out of car, walk inside, and dine in is dropping considerably. 

“That’s the way the industry is heading, and it’s the ones that can offer speed and consistency that will succeed.” 

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This article appears in the June 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.
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