Any successful restaurant requires communication among workers, but when you’re turning out quality food in a 30 by 8 foot space, even more cries of “below,” “behind” and “heard” are necessary to keep staff from trampling each other. “There’s not enough room to open the oven door and the beer cooler at the same time,” says Tampa restaurateur Ty Rodriguez, co-owner of Gallito. Rodriguez’ newest restaurant opened last November and occupies a former shipping container in Sparkman Wharf, a major project revitalizing Tampa’s Water Street neighborhood in Flordia.

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vibrant painted shipping containers turned into restaurants

Sparkman Wharf, formerly known as Channelside Bay Plaza, is the southern anchor of a $3 billion district called Water Street Tampa. The plan includes about 180,000 square feet of office space, 65,000 square feet of ground level retail, a park and recreational lawn. Yet the most eye-catching feature is the collection of repurposed shipping containers which now house nine places to order a meal, get a coffee or an ice pop. Seating is outside — sorry, the micro-restaurants barely contain the staff.

Related: Is cargotecture the future of construction? What you need to know for your next project

vibrant painted shipping containers turned into restaurants

Strategic Property Partners, LLC, who owns the wharf, worked with local art studio Pep Rally Inc. to paint a mural encompassing all the containers. SPP describes the result:  “The collage pattern of the mural includes natural elements and imagery celebrating the history and culture of Tampa. Water currents and raindrops move through mangrove roots. Egret, blue crabs, and anoles crawl through the artwork. Oranges and tobacco leaves are set over bricks, reminiscent of Ybor City. Nautical patterns as well as the latitude and longitude coordinates featured in the Sparkman Wharf brand are a nod to the wharf itself and to Port Tampa Bay. The varied and vibrant color palette complements the energy of the outdoor space and the diversity of the food concept available within the dining garden.”

vibrant painted shipping containers turned into restaurants

While the containers look gorgeous and upcycling materials always sounds like a cool idea, there is more than meets the eye at the Wharf when it comes to these small restaurants operating inside shipping containers. Rodriguez gave Inhabitat the lowdown.

First of all, the owners had a lot of experience before opening Gallito. Rodriguez and his best friend, Chef Ferrell Alvarez, already own Rooster & The Till, named the top restaurant in 2018 by the Tampa Bay Times. Alvarez was a 2017 James Beard Best Chef South nominee. Tampa entrepreneur Chon Nguyen is the third partner in Gallito. The three had worked together prior to opening the Nebraska Mini Mart, a 400 square foot restaurant in a former drive-up market. So these guys know what they’re doing — even in small spaces.

When they first heard about Sparkman Wharf, the partners were intrigued. “We thought it was an extremely interesting idea,” Rodriguez says. “What can we do in a 30 by 8 foot container that’s successful, good and most importantly, is feasible to pump good food out of an incredibly small area?” Since the other chefs involved were friends and colleagues, he was confident the wharf would have quality restaurants.

vibrant painted shipping containers turned into restaurants

The concept behind Gallito is an upscale, family-friendly taqueria with high-quality ingredients. “We wanted to do something palatable for a mass audience,” Rodriguez says. To work efficiently in a small space, they chose a pared-down menu with two appetizers, five tacos and a limited choice of Mexican beer, wines, sodas and house-made sangria. “We don’t have a wide variety of everything, but what we do is unique.”

Prep was the biggest challenge. Even though Gallito doesn’t open until noon, the sous chef and cook get there at seven. On weekdays, three to four people are usually working. On the busy weekend days, the staff maxes out at six — which is all the container can hold. “If I went in there on a Saturday and tried to help, I’d just be in the way,” Rodriguez says.

vibrant painted shipping containers turned into restaurants

To keep things simple in the fast casual container, they also had to trim down the point of sale so that every product they sell fits on one screen, rather than having separate screens for drinks and appetizers, as they do at Rooster & the Till. “How many steps is it going got take to complete this taco?” Rodriguez and Alvarez ask themselves. Gallito’s front of house staff garnish the tacos as they come out, something that wouldn’t be done in a more formal setting.

Since seating for both Gallito and Nebraska Mini Mart is all outdoors, Rodriguez has become addicted to the daily forecast. “I can tell you more about the weather in Florida than I care to talk to anyone about. We live and die by the weather.” If it rains, they have to cut labor and shorten that day’s operating hours to stay afloat. This will be Gallito’s first summer at Sparkman Wharf and he’s hoping Tampans will brave the heat.

Rodriguez may be serious about food, but he’s not above the occasional cargotecture pun. “Because of tight quarters and where everything is situated inside the container, you have to think outside the box.”

Images via Inhabitat