When driving down OMR, you might be taken aback by a ship’s prow protruding into the service lane. However, you won’t find any seafood at Tosai Club: instead, there is a shipping container serving 100 varieties of dosas.
Founder Damodaran S says, “While I was in St Petersburg on a cruise, I was fascinated by the port. Right off the pier, there were a line of restaurants serving various cuisines. I wanted to bring that feeling here.”
This is just one of the many restaurants that are finding a home in shipping containers. Chennai is no stranger to the concept.
A few years back, the now-defunct Port Cafe in Kodambakkam used them to create a themed dining space. Most recently, The Box Project (TBP) on General Patters Road and Kora Food Court on Anna Nagar second avenue, are creating a buzz. There’s also Smoke Factory on ECR, serving grills and barbeque.
Light on the pocket
One of the most appealing factors, at least to the folks setting up these spaces, is the cost.
Mohamed Majid of TBP says that dealing directly with suppliers at the port in Manali helped them procure the five boxes they’ve used at around ₹1.8 lakh each. “For interiors, we used a local carpenter to outfit each box according to the food being served there,” he says. And if there is a change of vendor, it can easily be remodeled as well, without breaking down any walls.
The clayey soil in OMR meant that additional piling work was required for Tosai Club, but it still worked out to be more cost effective than brick and mortar. While TBP follows a kiosk model, Tosai Club has an open kitchen that’s housed in the container.
Diners are seated in a maritime-themed space, and have a clear view of what goes into the making of their meal. “It’s great motivation to keep our kitchen spotless,” laughs Damodaran.
One of the hurdles the promoters face, however, is the licensing and permission from the city corporation. “There is a fair bit of ambiguity, as like food trucks, it is considered a temporary structure,” says Majid.
Chef Harish Rao, formerly at ITC’s Avartana, and now corporate chef at Big Berry Foods, says that it’s a novel approach to dining, but there are some factors to keep in mind.
“You can’t possibly make biriyani here. So it works if you have quick eats, or a supply from a central kitchen,” he explains. The alternative, he says, is to invest in equipment like combi-ovens, that are capable of grilling or slow cooking in contained spaces.
At Kora Food Street — where over 10 shipping containers have been used — this seems to be the plan in action. Although only about 16 restaurants are currently functioning, assistant general manager Sneha Rafi informs us that the number will grow close to 40 over the next few months.
“We have both outdoor and indoor spaces, and the first floor dining area was recently opened. There are a lot of easy-to-eat foods like chaat, idlis, Italian and kebabs,” she says.
Mind the law
- A Greater Chennai Corporation official tells us these are the major licenses required for a shipping container restaurant:
- Building plan approval for the structure, parking and other facilities
- Health license, after inspection by a corporation health official
- Trade license from the zonal authority
- No Objection Certificate from the fire department
Just like theme restaurants, there is a certain novelty factor to dining at these shipping container outlets. But no matter the decor and facilities, says Majid, “The quality of food has to be consistent; that’s what will have people coming back for more.”