Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Those Who Work In the Box are More Likely to Succeed During Pandemic as They Think Outside of It

A Look at Container Based Pop Up Businesses Fighting for Custom During Lockdown
Shipping News Feature

UK – We have covered the multiple uses to which shipping containers have been put over the years on several occasions. From luxury houses and boutique hotels to aquaria and kids sports facilities, plus of course the famous pop up Pen Tavern which toured the logistics exhibition scene for container group Pentalver.

Now container specialist Cleveland Containers, which numbers the production of such bespoke units within its portfolio, has taken a look at how small businesses which depend on the ubiquitous metal boxes for their livelihoods, have fared during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.

The results should perhaps be not so surprising as most companies set up with the entrepreneurial vision to appreciate the transferability, security and low set up costs which containers offer are likely to act swiftly and decisively when a threat like the coronavirus comes along.

Cleveland Containers boss, MD Johnathan Bulmer runs a company whose sole business for two decades has consisted of selling, hiring, transporting and converting shipping containers so he decided to check three UK businesses in the food and drink sector which operate from them as they ran into a situation nobody could have foreseen.

The pandemic wasn’t something that such businesses could spend months preparing for, they had a few weeks maximum before they started to be aware that forced closure could happen, but now, as restrictions start to ease the public continues to be nervous about the risks of eating out, hence the government offer to pay half the bill on certain meals at certain times.

The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has listed three categories of infection risk associated with dining out, lower risk is drive-through, takeout and delivery, while medium risk is onsite dining outdoor, with socially-distanced tables. Eating and drinking inside restaurants and bars is still labelled high-risk. So, with street food now a billion pound business, are people more attracted to locations where they can gather outside, to avoid ‘danger zones’?

40ft, an aptly named micro-brewery built out of second-hand shipping containers in Dalston, East London, provides beer for customers in its tap room, but also distributes its pale ales, lagers, stouts and more to other pubs. As such, when the pandemic struck, it’s entire supply chain stopped. Its beer also takes around three weeks to properly brew, so when the writing was on the wall that they would likely have to close, they acted quickly.

Steve Ryan, owner at 40ft was faced with a decision to be made as he saw the problem approaching, there were staff to pay pre-furlough and the previous week’s beer ready for distribution which Steve was understandably reluctant to pour down the drain, he comments:

“We shut things down a week or so before we went into lockdown, as we didn’t want to waste any beer. When all of your businesses you sell to are in hospitality, and they literally close overnight, it’s terrifying. We still had 9,000 litres of beer in tanks! We immediately opened a web store to sell our beers in cans, and arranged home deliveries and click and collect opportunities to customers.

”We also managed to get mini kegs which hold around eight pints, so people could pour their own beer at home. It was good to still have a purpose and have our products out there, and it also helped to keep our mental health as we were keeping busy.”

The kegs proved an ingenious way to give people a little bit of the pub atmosphere at home and the company managed to sell all of their beer, even reaching out to other pubs to credit them with mini kegs. This was all supported by a promotion initiative for its taproom, where 40ft would double the cost of vouchers bought.

The brewery also started a bar tab to support NHS workers, so people could buy beers for carers, which the company doubled the cost of and which to date has raised £1,200, and followed that up by launching a new 6% IPA, called the 6FT - best ‘enjoyed at a distance’.

Meanwhile Tin Can Kitchen, the brainchild of three self-confessed foodies, was set to be a new outdoor music and food venue in Newport, Wales. Head chef, Barry, picked up innovative ways of cooking street food from his travels around the world, and Tin Can Kitchen was designed to be shipping containers converted into high spec kitchens which would form the basis of an outdoor food court and speciality street food hotspot.

“But then coronavirus happened,” said Jordan Phillips, responsible for marketing at the food venue. “We thought for a second we might have to shelve the idea, but after doing market research and seeing there was a huge demand online for food, we decided that we could pivot.”

Tin Can Kitchen used its original menu, consisting of Cajun-inspired burgers, loaded fries, and weekly specials, and launched a food delivery service out of its shipping container, to offer the community special street food.

“We had limited expectations of what would happen, and we planned for every outcome, but it blew up. We promoted a lot on social media, but the quality of the food led to huge word of mouth to order from us. We went in with lots of unknowns and weren’t sure this would take off, but people were looking for that weekly treat, and we’re finding that people want to help the community too.”

Tin Can Kitchen are still hopeful that they will be able to launch a food court in the Welsh city, and grow into other cities like Cardiff, all going well. Following the success, they now have three containers all serving different foods from around the world, including pizzas, and Chicago-style hotdogs and burgers.

The last business Cleveland looked at was the Lost Sheep Coffee in Kent, which has become sort of a local coffee empire, turning from a coffee kiosk into a full blown container cafe with its pod in Canterbury, and also having a roastery in the city. The company already sold its coffee on the web, but they’d realised they wanted to increase their presence online.

Like the other two, the virus made for a completely different business situation, but one which perhaps pushed it in the right direction. Founder Stuart Wilson said as soon as things ‘went south’ the firm shut down every single customer-facing aspect so that both of its cafes were shut down, and it switched to purely online sales straight away.

The move worked beyond all expectations and the sudden switch proved beneficial to the tune of an immediate 564% hike in online sales compared to the previous year. Stuart Wilson observed:

“We’re quite fortunate we wanted to move online anyway, and we were in a position to service the dramatic increase in demand. Hopefully more people will see the benefits of speciality coffee, and what you can buy for similar sort of money which is ten times better than what they might have previously been drinking.”

All three businesses have begun reopening in recent weeks as restrictions have lifted. In the case of Lost Sheep Coffee, its Canterbury pod has seen an influx of brand new customers as it reopened for collection. Stuart said he can only attribute that to the container ticking so many boxes for people, continuing:

“When it comes to food, people are already very conscious of what they’re eating, let alone in a pandemic. With the location of a container, you can tick more boxes, and people get the thrill of a coffee shop without having to queue indoors and feel like they’re entering an unsafe zone.”

Measures they’ve taken to ensure safety include screens between staff and customers, which will be up for at least another year as it’s made out of glass, not plastic. Jordan at Tin Can Kitchen also said the container nature of the premises ‘certainly helped’ them to achieve success right now. The 20 foot box it operates from ensures a fair distance between their skeleton crew and the delivery business is tiding it over until hopefully the Food Court can be established.

As 40ft reopened for business on 4 July, they took advantage of the fact that they’re made up of four shipping containers. Currently only offering seating availability, with groups of two, four and six, with no tables allowed to be shared, they also have a one way system to the bar, with only one person allowed to order for the table at a time. They’re also asking for all contact details, so they can implement their own track and trace system, fully GDPR compliant.

So the pop up nature of these container based businesses have enabled both the staff and customers to have the freedom to enjoy a little bit of normality, while keeping everybody as safe as possible. With fears of a second wave to come next winter could this be the future of such hospitality centred businesses for the foreseeable future?

Photo: The Tin Can Kitchen in action.