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When local business owner Laures Dockery visited Sparkman Wharf in Tampa, she fell in love.
Sparkman Wharf is a waterfront destination where residents and tourists alike gather for a taste of local eats and retail treats. And it has an unusual format for doing so: the use of shipping containers for its popular eateries.
Dockery, 29, was immediately inspired by the location and started dreaming up ways to use the idea for Our Noire Kitchen.
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“I was telling my husband, like wouldn’t it be great if we could have a spot here?” Dockery said.
Sparkman Wharf is a popular day trip for many Lakeland locals, but they could soon have to travel a lot less for the taste of the shipping container food court frenzy seen across the country.
On Sept. 21, the Lakeland Planning and Zoning Board approved several changes to the city’s land development code, among them an added provision that allows “shipping containers as accessory structures for certain commercial uses.” Those uses include food stalls and micro-retail spaces.
The code change will soon head before the Lakeland City Commission. If approved, landowners could immediately start applying for the use of shipping containers to launch small businesses.
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Julie Townsend, executive director of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, can picture some unused parcels or underutilized parking lots becoming dedicated to hosting shipping containers.
“Now that the city has that on their radar as an actual commercial use, yeah the next step is how do we use those in downtown to make a cool, pop-up retail situation,” Townsend said.
What is Lakeland considering?
Matt Lyons, a chief planner with the city, said the amendment allowing shipping containers for certain commercial uses was inspired by trends across Florida and nationwide.
Previously, the city didn’t allow containers to be used as accessory structures or otherwise because people would use them as “cheap storage,” Lyons said – they would plop down containers and use them as sheds. But more creative uses of containers in neighboring areas, like Orlando and Tampa, gave the city something to reconsider.
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“In the case of shipping containers, it probably started earlier in the last decade,” Lyons said. “People started trying to find creative ways to reuse and repurpose them because they were piling up in the ports – obviously from overseas trade.”
Lyons described shipping containers as a more permanent version of food trucks, which several businesses will park alongside their small office or commercial building. Successful, long-term food trucks could morph into a shipping container model and become a long-term structure alongside the original building.
A property owner could also apply for a conditional use permit to construct a “court” of eateries or retail spaces. But Lyons added the containers must be added onto existing commercial property.
The containers would also have to be in compliance with certain zoning rules, such as setbacks, and would have to be outfitted with commercial windows, doors, awnings, signage, landscaping, lighting and other requirements, Lyons said.
While the containers can technically be used for anything approved, the outlined uses include restaurants or food stalls, retail kiosks and small-scale hydroponic farms, which grow plants without soil. Lyons said the city wanted to find ways to allow creativity to flourish while also creating net benefits for the community.
“People are just rethinking ways to do small-scale retail,” Lyons said. “If you did have someone like a small stall entrepreneur, like making their own jewelry or crafts or whatever, we would offer them that affordable option for getting their foot in the door without having to sign a commercial lease and possibly all that entails.”
By going with a shipping container, small business owners can cut down on costs and avoid burdensome objectives such as parking requirements, Lyons said.
The slew of land use amendments approved by the Planning and Zoning Board will head before the commission on Oct. 4 and for a second reading and public hearing on Oct. 18.
What would this look like in Lakeland?
Townsend with the LDDA thinks shipping containers are the perfect way to get reluctant retailers to test the waters downtown.
“I don’t know if we’re necessarily looking for a food court – we’ve got plenty of restaurants downtown,” Townsend said. “But we would love to see more retail. And one of the challenges for retail is the expense of buildout and the size of the parcels downtown just are too large for what they need. So they’re paying all this rent for square footage that they don’t necessarily need or want.”
Lakeland already encourages small-scale entrepreneurs to market their products at events such as the weekly farmers market and monthly First Fridays, which includes a popular makers market for local retailers.
While some businesses have made the jump to brick and mortar from farmers market success – Honeycomb Bread Bakers in Winter Haven comes to mind – Townsend said a pop-up market could be a better test for those not ready to make the financial investment in a permanent location.
“It would be very cool to try to create sort of a micro-retail court so that these folks have the opportunity to test the waters of, you know, a six or seven days a week retail experience for their business,” Townsend said.
Townsend added that the court of shipping containers, leaning mostly retail with some restaurants thrown in, could come in two forms.
One, the court could appear only at certain times of the year, such as when the snowbirds are in town or the weather is nice for spring. The market would only be accessible for three or four months at a time so there’d be “some scarcity to it.”
“You would plot these down and then it becomes this sort of experience that comes and goes, so you better get down there while it’s down there,” Townsend said.
The market could also be a permanent fixture with vendors swapping out every few months.
Those are models that Dockery with Our Noire Kitchen prefers to a more permanent spot.
Our Noire Kitchen, a business that’s only a year old, currently does meal prep, private dining and catering during the week and serves Caribbean jerk and barbecue in a large pit smoker at farmer’s markets and community events on weekends.
Dockery said she’d like to pursue a food truck soon but was also intrigued by the small-scale and somewhat temporary nature of shipping containers.
“I just thought that would be a great next stepping stone because it’s not as big of a commitment as a storefront,” Dockery said. “This is a happy medium because we could try it out for a few months or however long the term is.”
Dockery would love to see Lakeland emulate Sparkman Wharf with a space that encouraged people to come and hang out rather than just pass through.
But where would a market like that appear?
Townsend said there are a few city and privately-owned vacant spaces and parking lots that could host shipping containers. She threw out lots next to The Joinery, north of NOBAY and next to Mitchell’s as examples.
She added that putting a market in those spaces could close gaps in the downtown shopping corridor.
“One of the things that stops folks is when they’re walking down a street and there’s buildings, buildings, buildings and all the sudden, there’s this large empty parking lot that they have to navigate across to get to anything else interesting on the other side,” Townsend said. “The breakage in the continuity of buildings sometimes is harmful, and often times is harmful, to people continuing on their journey.”
Business community hungry for containers
Local residents and business owners are eager to see how shipping containers could alter the economic landscape.
Lea Williams, 57, owns a piece of property with a concrete building she has yet to start modifying to host a business. She would be willing to purchase a shipping container and place it on the property instead, hypothesizing that a container with financing will run her less than the roofing alone will on her untouched building.
Williams has owned Got Desserts since 2011 and had two brick and mortar locations before transitioning full-time to a food truck five years ago.
“Some days your brick and mortar may be open all day long and I’m gonna go out and do my truck and do an event for two or three hours and make as much if not more,” Williams said.
A shipping container might nudge her to reconsider brick and mortar because of the cost and size. She would use the space as a pickup area for her treats and maybe to host some small retail.
“I think it’s a beautiful idea. I think it is also a less expensive way for a business owner to be able to have a place of their own,” Williams said.
According to another business owner, choosing a shipping container over a traditional storefront can cut costs in half.
Douglas Law, 50, runs the two Lakeland Jimmy John’s locations alongside his brother. The pair are bringing another sandwich shop to 600 N. Broadway Ave. in Bartow soon, in the parking lot of the BB&T building. But the restaurant is actually a shipping container, being built out and then sent from North Carolina. The brothers hatched the plan about a year and a half ago to cut down costs.
“A normal buildout will run you $600,000-$750,000 building a building,” Law said. “A shipping container, getting it all built out and equipment and all that is about, coming in around $300,000-$350,000.”
It’s faster, too. Law said the shipping container restaurant had only a three-and-a-half-month construction timeline, and will be ready for delivery at the end of October. The new Jimmy John’s is tentatively set to open the first week of November.
It’ll be smaller than other locations, but Law sees that as a plus because less square footage means land costs come down.
And there’s another advantage: Law can literally take his business anywhere.
“A good thing is with a shipping container, let’s say the business location in Bartow doesn’t work, it just becomes a flop,” Law said. “I can literally unhook everything … move it and start somewhere else.”
Law said the shift has already been worth it. He will definitely consider shipping containers for his future locations, which are targeted for North Lakeland near the mall, Winter Haven and possibly Highland City.
It isn’t just business owners who will benefit. Realtor Ashley Bearden, 35, said a shipping container court could raise Lakeland’s entire profile and translate to a rise in home values.
“Our downtown scene is thriving. And with the upcoming Bonnet Springs Park, I think having it kind of centrally located between downtown and the new Bonnet Springs Park would be the perfect idea,” Bearden said. “It would be great if we could have our own little Sparkman nearby.”
Bearden said a spot that emulated the popular Sparkman Wharf could keep people in Lakeland and out of Orlando and Tampa.
There are no firm plans for shipping container restaurants or retailers quite yet. But if the land code changes are approved, Townsend sees a path forward.
“I don’t think tomorrow the city is ready to let shipping containers fill up empty spaces in downtown. But I think now it’s something that we can have a conversation about and see how we can do it intelligently and make it work for the existing businesses,” Townsend said. “It’s exciting because they’re cool and funky and I think folks are ready to let that be part of our Lakeland landscape whereas in years past, we kind of frowned on that.”
Maya Lora can be reached with tips or questions at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @mayaklora.