Eat & Drink

North Kansas City outdoor food hall made of converted shipping containers set to open

The buzz of work on the brightly colored village of repurposed shipping containers in North Kansas City has prompted many drivers to pull over and ask just exactly what’s going on with this anomaly set in an otherwise industrial neighborhood.

“I’m not exaggerating, it’s all day long,” said Rachel Kennedy Cuevas. “People just see the containers and they stop.”

She’s one of the partners behind the Iron District, a collection of food and retail stores at the intersection of E. 16th Avenue and Iron Street. The district, set to open sometime in September, takes the concept of a food hall to a new venue: steel shipping containers.

Cuevas owned the Plantain District food truck for several years. After a while, she yearned for a more permanent home, a place where customers could easily find their favorite Cuban dishes.

The idea of a shipping container quickly started to make a lot of sense. The prebuilt structures are similar in size and shape to the galley kitchens inside food trucks. And at only a few thousand dollars a pop, they’re far cheaper than the price of a working food truck, which she says can run as high as $150,000.

The Iron District will provide an incubator of sorts for emerging food companies. It’s a more settled location than a food truck but a lot less expensive than getting a brick-and-mortar shop.

“It’s kind of a next step for a food truck,” Cuevas said. “It’s a solid steel container. It’s almost indestructible.”

The Iron District includes seven established and new restaurant concepts. Plantain District takes up the largest container, while others like B-Rad’s, a purveyor of smoked meats, comfort food and international cuisine, and Avobite, an avocado bar that will offer savory and sweet items made from avocados, fill in the rest of the container park.

In addition to retailers selling everything from irreverent T-shirts to handmade jewelry, the Iron District will feature an ice cream shop, a tiki bar and a central courtyard filled with picnic tables. Cuevas envisions the container park will draw workers for a quick lunch or a happy hour, but also encourage people to come linger on Friday and Saturday evenings to eat, drink and shop.

One upended container houses all the park’s mechanical and electrical equipment and serves as a backdrop for a stage for live music. The container park may operate on a seasonal basis, but Cuevas said that will depend on winter weather.

Her business partner, Zach Taylor, had owned the vacant corner lot for years.

“When she mentioned food, I was all in,” he said. “That’s the same thing I was thinking for this corner. I felt like it needed something that would bring people down here.”

A mechanical contractor who works on commercial kitchens, Taylor has overseen much of the technical work converting the shipping containers. Each restaurant is housed in a brand new container, while the retail stores are in used containers.

Taylor has installed air conditioners, doors and windows in all the buildings. The restaurant units have new interior walls and floors, along with commercial grade ranges, ventilation hoods and dish-washing and hand-washing sinks.

The containers require experience with welding and sheet metal work, but the kitchen work is the same as in any other restaurant.

“There’s definitely some challenges but once you get inside the building it’s all the same,” Taylor said. “It’s pretty much a full package construction project.”

North Kansas City Administrator Eric Berlin said the city offered no incentives toward the project. But local officials are nonetheless excited about the new venture.

“This is kind of an outdoor food hall. Those have become quite popular nowadays and this is kind of a different wrinkle on it,” he said. “I think people are going to be interested to check this out and see the variety that’s there.”

Aside from its unique nature, the Iron District will bring dining and shopping to a heavily commercial part of town. While it’s not far from popular North Kansas City haunts like Chicken N Pickle and nearby breweries, the collection of shipping containers are entirely surrounded by industrial buildings.

“A few blocks over there’s quite a bit of activity,” Berlin said, “But there at 16th and Iron, this is a relatively new thing.”

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Kevin Hardy covers business for The Kansas City Star. He previously covered business and politics at The Des Moines Register. He also has worked at newspapers in Kansas and Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas