The repurposing of shipping containers as an affordable building material has spread nationwide for residential and commercial applications. During this time, consumer retail habits in the United States have also evolved. Immediately after World War II, shopping, dining and entertainment typically occurred on main streets and downtowns. These traditional venues lost their allure with changing demographics, suburbanization, and the advent of the mall and the food court (first introduced in 1974), which encouraged customers to stay and purchase more merchandise.
Over the last 15 years, however, food courts have faded as many malls can no longer find anchor tenants. The boom of online purchasing hastened this decline, but so did a somewhat opposing trend: the surge of interest in local, independent and crafted products.
This has boosted the renewal of historic markets (Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles, and Pike Place Market in Seattle). Smaller but also successful recent examples are Eataly in West Los Angeles and the Packing House in Anaheim’s historic Center City.
Food halls have thrived even as conventional mall food courts with generic national brands have faltered because they respond to a fundamental shift in how consumers—particularly millennial consumers—eat, drink, and gather. The food hall offers a unique experience that cannot be found anywhere else. And now community-scaled food halls are emerging in overlooked neighborhoods sometimes considered both food and beverage “deserts.”
Many of the best examples are in Southern California: with a decades-long trade imbalance, California has become a storage yard for shipping containers. These can house food venues costing as low as $2,500-$3,000 per container, with additional advantages such as speed-to-assemble and flexibility.
The Roost in Santa Ana offered us at Studio One Eleven an opportunity to integrate shipping containers with existing structures to create what has become a public living room for the community, the kind of indoor/outdoor environment where neighbors and visitors gather in a central garden area defined by containers. The site originally included a mix of existing structures: a craftsman bungalow duplex, a 1920s commercial bungalow and even a two-story barn. Shipping containers completed the puzzle by housing the bar and restaurant, and creating a compelling sense of place.
Another model is emerging in Anaheim. Here, Leisuretown comprises a historic Craftsman home, a bow-truss warehouse, and a former auto garage near the Anaheim Packing House. Developing both The Packing House and Leisuretown is LAB Holding LLC. Its mission weaves community, culture, commerce and consciousness into innovation and placemaking. One operator, Modern Times Brewery, will lease the entire Leisuretown site. Here we reimagined the Craftsman house into a sit-down restaurant, the warehouse into a brewery/bar that overlooks a new swimming pool, and the garages into quick-serve food venues. Two levels of shipping containers define a courtyard and provide additional food and seating.
Other neighborhood-serving container food halls in Southern California are emerging in the historic downtowns of Bellflower and Garden Grove, both developed by Howard CDM – the developer and builder for the SteelCraft series of container-based food halls.
In all these examples, the benefits go beyond cost: they help build social cohesion and a compelling sense of place. LAB Holding Founder Shaheen Sadeghi defines places such as Leisuretown as “the community’s backyard,”
“When communities tear down history and build all new products, it takes away the soul and the heartbeat of the city. By preserving as many of these buildings as possible and blending with new products built in the area, we hope to create an even better-balanced neighborhood.”