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Cargo container becomes Mexican eatery

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Aprisas Kirk Lance (left) and Pedro Garcia offer a take-out Mexican restaurant in a converted cargo container parked near Southeast Eighth Avenue and Division Street. When a customer asks Aprisa restaurant owner Kirk Lance if he recycles, Lance can honestly say, “Just look around.” And he means everywhere.

The Mexican takeout operation at Portland’s Southeast Eighth Avenue near Division Street is a completely recycled building, inhabiting what was once an abandoned cargo container. It stands as testimony to the idea that done right, re-use can take the risk out of starting a new business.

Fifteen years ago, Lance owned two Mexican restaurants in Casper, Wyo., strip malls. They eventually went out of business, and Lance moved to Portland and began working for food service company Sysco.

But the restaurateur bug never left him. He knew what he wanted next time — and what he didn’t want.

“I wanted to avoid the pitfalls of opening in somebody else’s building,” he says.

Leasing space and opening previous restaurants had committed him to hundreds of thousands of dollars up front, Lance says. Most of it went into building out space to turn it into restaurants, including adding specialized cooking and dishwashing equipment. When the restaurants failed, it was all money down the drain.

Inspiration

Four years ago, Lance was driving on Interstate 5 near Delta Park when he spotted hundreds of stacked shipping containers. A little research revealed that abandoned shipping containers like these were proliferating all across the country. They’re built to bring goods to the United States, and are easily picked up and set on boats, trains or truck beds. After nine or 10 years, they begin to deteriorate and are discarded.

In a flash, Lance knew he wasn’t looking at hundreds of unneeded 40-feet-long by eight-feet-wide shipping containers.

“It hit me that there’s a recycled restaurant,” he says. “Every one of those is a recycled restaurant.”

Transport would be easy — the containers are built to be trucked anywhere and set down. On Craigslist he found an abandoned parking lot in an industrial section of close-in Southeast Portland. “It’s a horrible location,” he admits.

But he could try it, because his investment was minimal for a new restaurant. It cost Lance $2,500 for the container. It cost him a little less than $150,000 to get his restaurant up and running.

A steel plate anchored into concrete is welded into the container to keep it in place. New steel siding was used to wrap the entire container, and soybean-based insulation was placed between the container and the siding. A full bathroom was built in one corner of the container, with a separate outside entrance.

Best of all, Lance knew from the start that if the location didn’t work out, all he would have to do is cut the welds, put his cargo container restaurant on a truck bed and move it somewhere else.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Aprisas Pedro Garcia whips up a breakfast burrito iinside the former shipping container.Lance can look a few blocks away and see competition in the form of a Jack in the Box and a Taco Bell, which he knows cost a minimum of $1 million each to build. Not only can most of his investment travel with him, but he even had his lease written to include an inexpensive exit clause if the restaurant doesn’t work.

Fortunately for Lance, that hasn’t been necessary.

Expansion in the works

“They say if you’ve made it past three years, you’re going to be OK,” Lance says. Due to a steadily improving breakfast and lunch burrito trade from workers at nearby businesses, Aprisa now has passed its fourth anniversary. In fact, Lance is going to open a second storage container Aprisa on an undisclosed location on Southeast 82nd Avenue within the next few months.

Another benefit to the storage container model, according to Lance, is it’s basically impervious to fire. “If you really chart the carbon emissions, the highest emission potential is if the thing would ever burn,” he says. “There’s nothing to burn. There’s no wood. It’s all steel.”

That also means no trees were harvested for his structure, Lance adds.

He’s done research and learned that in Europe an entire apartment building has been built out of abandoned storage containers just like his, stacked one on top of another. Starbucks recently has experimented with using shipping containers for small versions of its coffee shops.

Lance figures they’d be great for disaster relief — stacked upon ships they could be rushed to areas such as the Philippines, which recently suffered a typhoon — and used for emergency housing. Furnishings and emergency food and water supplies would just be packed inside each container.

As far as Lance is concerned, portability trumps even recylability. “If this restaurant doesn’t work, it’s not going to be knocked down,” he says. “If this neighborhood changes to where it doesn’t work here anymore, we’re going to move it wherever.”

Spotting those abandoned storage containers allowed Lance to start his restaurant and, if need be, close it out without feeling guilty.

“What really happens in life is people have an idea and they are excited to go into business,” he says. “And they find out it’s not for them for whatever reason. And they very infrequently have an exit strategy. This has a built-in exit strategy.”