Cover Story: Thinking outside the box

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Thinking outside the box.  It looks like a shipping container, turns into a gourmet restaurant and it could be coming to a neighborhood near you.

It's a cool, new spin on an old idea.

It's basically the same concept as a taco truck.  It moves from place to place, feeding the masses.  But instead of tacos, it's gourmet fare.  And instead of a truck, it's an old shipping container.  And there's the rub.

Because it's not on wheels, it's against the law to operate in Charlotte.  But an entrepreneur is hoping to get the City Council to change the ordinance regulating mobile food vendors.

Believe it or not it was the recession that hatched this idea.

Fast food.  It's everywhere you look.  It isn't hard finding a place.  But want to eat healthy and have the food come to you?

Have it shipped in, Charlotte real estate developer David Campbell thought, "Maybe I can make things that can take advantage of some real estate that isn't ready to be developed to its highest and best use."

With the world in a recession and shipping slowed new uses for shipping containers are popping up everywhere.

Campbell turned some into hospitality suites he's taken to sporting events.

His next venture - with a company he's calling Boxman Studios - is turning a boxcar into a place where you can serve box lunches.  But make it high-end organic fare.

"It behooves us and behooves Charlotte to be able to move this around and take advantage.. bring this type of fare to different sections," he says.

There's only one problem.  To be a mobile food vendor in Charlotte city ordinance requires you to operate on wheels.

And as soon as Campbell takes the container off this big truck he's in violation of the ordinance.

"If I leave it on the back of my truck or I put it on a trailer I could be operating today," he says.  "But as soon as I drop it to the ground-- it does not fulfill the definition of a mobile food unit as it's written in Charlotte right now."

Campbell is trying to convince the City Council to amend the rules.  But council members are reluctant to tinker with the ordinance having re-written it two years ago when citizens complained of taco trucks in neighborhoods late at night and attracting crime.

Councilman Andy Dulin says his colleagues fall into two camps and they are, "Hey, here's an entrepreneur. Let's give him a shot. And some of them are going, 'Well, wait a minute now. I was in those meetings too with the mobile food vendors and I'm comfortable and confident that we cleaned up the community.'"

Campbell is having the containers built in a north Charlotte warehouse.  His plan would be to haul the container to a spot like Center City, serve lunch and pick it up in a few hours.

But some critics like community leader Bernie Samonds fear it could open a Pandora's Box.  He says, "There would be a lot of other business uses for this.. you hear stories about everything from selling tacos to t-shirts out of them. If you need a place to operate you need to be looking for rent."

Campbell says he wouldn't be putting it in neighborhoods rather areas where there are a lot of people - like a Center City or business park and only for lunch..

Why a shipping container?  Because it's unique.  He says he's creating an unusual experience you can't get anywhere else.  He's contracted with a renowned chef to offer organic lunches, high-end fare.

Monday night the City Council deferred a vote on amending the mobile food vendor ordinance.  Council members have some more questions they want answered.  The issue will go back before council in September.

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