Boxing clever

A shipping containerImage copyright
Oliver Cleve

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Shipping containers can go on to spend a happy retirement as a bar, cafe or shop

As Alessio De Laureto drops the calamari rings into the sizzling oil, he says he is very happy to work in a box.

Thankfully for the 30-year-old Italian, his popular takeaway Don Luigi isn’t based in something made out of cardboard or plastic.

Instead, he runs his business from an old shipping container – the steel boxes that usually spend their time circumnavigating the globe on cargo ships.

And Mr De Laureto is far from alone. His business is based at Pop Brixton, a busy food and retail development in south London comprising 50 former shipping containers and which opened in 2015.

His onsite neighbours include 15 other takeaways and restaurants, plus bars, clothing retailers, and offices for other start-up firms, including a maker of Bluetooth speakers.

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Nick Caville

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The Boxpark Croydon development is made up of 76 shipping containers

“I’m very happy indeed to be here,” says Mr De Laureto. “Myself and my business partner Maria are only starting out, so we couldn’t have afforded the rent of a proper [bricks and mortar] shop, and this is much better than having a pop-up or market stall exposed to the rain.”

As the cost of renting a bricks and mortar location gets ever more expensive in the UK, Pop Brixton is part of a small, but growing movement to build food and retail villages or “pop-up malls” made from shipping containers.

Also in London, is Boxpark, which now has two sites, in Shoreditch in the east of the city, and Croydon in the south. Meanwhile, in Bristol there is Cargo One, with Cargo Two due to open in the spring.

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Alessio De Laureto is using Pop Brixton to launch his Italian takeaway

Each offers start-up businesses a more affordable way to get a roof over their heads, and the opportunity to rub shoulders with other like-minded firms, in a location where they can all benefit from the combined footfall that comes from being part of a larger retail community.

To boost visitor numbers further, and turn the sites into wider leisure attractions, both Boxpark and Pop Brixton organise regular music concerts at their locations.

But how exactly do the companies get their hands on shipping containers?

Quality grades

In 2015, 2.48 million standard-size 40ft (12m) shipping containers arrived in the UK, but only 2.41 million left again, according to official figures from the Department for Transport.

The ones that stay are typically retired from service due to wear and tear, and put up for sale. And if you fancy one as a large garden shed, you can pick one up for about £1,100.

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The Pop Brixton site also has offices to let

One of the biggest sellers of the containers is Bullman Marine Supplies and Containers, which is based beside the Thames in Barking, east London.

It currently has more than 7,000 containers for sale, and also sources brand new ones from China for buyers who want one in sparkling condition. One of these could set you back £2,500.

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Camille Mack

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Pizza business Made of Dough is another firm based at Pop Brixton

Bullman project manager Oliver Bullman says: “We buy used containers from shipping lines who sell them when they reach their asset write-off value, at which stage the line replaces worn containers with new ones.

“Their lifespan depends on how damaged them become. Containers carrying scrap steel might wear out in four or five years, while others, with any necessary repairs and refurbishment, can last 25 years.”

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Nick Caville

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Boxpark Croydon has a communal dining area

The used containers are available in three quality grades – A, B, and C – with A being the best quality.

Bullman will also convert containers for customers, turning them into everything from mobile bars to crowd control turnstiles, exhibition units, and bike racks.

‘Fascination’

Boxpark in Shoreditch, which launched in 2011, was the first food and retail park made entirely from shipping contains to open in the UK.

Its founder, Roger Wade, says that the genesis of the idea goes back to 1999 when he was running fashion brand Boxfresh.

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xavi dom buendia

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Both Boxpark sites and Pop Brixton are home to numerous bars

He says: “I’d always been into industrialisation. When attending German trade shows with Boxfresh we would build a mini shop and then knock it down, so eventually I started to wonder ‘why don’t I build a trade show stand in a container?’.

“That was the beginning of my fascination, in 1999. Years later a friend was running retail developments, so some time in 2008-09 I wondered ‘why not build a whole retail development out of containers?’.

“Boxpark was the world’s first pop-up mall when we launched in Shoreditch in 2011.”

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Simon Fry

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The containers can be fitted out to the required specification of the tennant

Boxpark Shoreditch is now home to 19 restaurants and bars, and 27 shops, while its second site in Croydon has 35 places to eat and drink.

Each container is connected to mains electricity and water, and Boxpark can help tenants to fit-out their premises.

Rents are typically £20,000 a year, more than a market stall, but less than bricks and mortar premises.

And the sites themselves have all passed planning and building location regulations.

‘Storage woes’

Back at Pop Brixton, Rik Campbell is one of the owners of Indian restaurant Kricket, which has space for 20 diners in its container.

He says: “Pop Brixton provides a platform for start-ups or young businesses to focus primarily on their product or service, by taking away many of the operational headaches associated with running an independent business.

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Jonny Williams says that Pop Brixton saved him from working from his sofa

“It’s a great environment to test a concept without too much capital expenditure, and with a high concentration of other businesses that automatically generate solid footfall.

“[However] undoubtedly the biggest con is storage – we simply are so limited on space it means we have to stay on top of our ordering for food and drink.”

Despite being a bit cramped, Pop Brixton has enabled Kricket to prove that its food and service is popular, and it now also has a bricks and mortar outlet in Soho, central London.

Another business based at Pop Brixton is speaker firm Boombocs, which makes wooden Bluetooth speaker systems.

Its owner and founder Jonny Williams, says setting up at Pop Brixton saved him from having to work from home.

“If I wasn’t able to get in here I’d still be at home working on my sofa, which wasn’t ideal.”

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