Alumni retrofit shipping containers into trendy food, drink carts
To Alex Mickle ’03 there are few insults worse than “traditional.” You might as well call him a sheep or a bore. It’s not surprising that for his new business venture, it wasn’t enough to simply open a food cart pod. Instead, he and his business partner, Kylan Johnson ’12, envision their Columbia Food Park as part restaurant incubator, part urban redevelopment and part community event space.
Even the story of Mickle’s and Johnson’s partnership bucks convention. It all started with a torn coat.
Mickle had recently moved into the Vancouver, Wash., neighborhood where Johnson was living. As Johnson walked over to introduce himself, Mickle’s 140-pound dog, a Great Pyrenees-Malamute mix named Bjorn, grew protective of the newborn baby that Mickle’s wife was holding. The dog jumped up and tore Johnson’s North Face jacket.
Johnson laughed it off, Mickle apologized, and the two eventually became friends. They soon learned that attending Clark College was one experience the two men shared.
Mickle had attended classes at Clark College through its Running Start program, which allows high school students to take college-level courses for credit.
“I’m not someone who likes to follow the traditional route of anything, so I appreciated the nature of college (earlier) than maybe some other people do,” Mickle said.
He didn’t take the classwork seriously, however, and finished high school with an unimpressive grade point average. Mickle later earned an online bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication, with a minor in marketing from Ashford University.
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Johnson got his first formal training in web design at Clark College in 2012. He transferred to an online university and later dropped out of school altogether.
Shortly after the two met, Johnson began designing websites for a trio of brands that Mickle was managing at the time. Mickle worked in finance but wanted to learn more about Johnson’s experience on the creative side of business development. So one day, he came to Johnson’s office to shadow him.
By coincidence, Johnson had an appointment that day to visit the old C-Tran transit center in downtown Vancouver, which had recently become available. Johnson invited Mickle along, and the two walked over during their lunch break.
Both were inspired by the unusual space and saw potential for developing it for business purposes. They also envisioned a new career path for themselves.
As a web designer, Johnson focuses on helping small, local businesses grow by fine-tuning their brand elements and expanding their online reach. He works closely with Columbia Collective, which provides office space and basic support for budding companies.
Mickle, whose most recent career was with startup businesses, was also attracted to the idea of a business model that was part incubator.
Food scene ripe for infusion
Vancouver is the sixth fastest-growing city in Washington, according to the state’s most recent estimates. Both Johnson and Mickle believe the population boom in Vancouver makes the city overdue for culinary growth.
“We feel like Vancouver’s food scene is behind for how fast the downtown core is growing,” Johnson said. “If you work downtown, you hit all of (the breweries and restaurants) in one week and then there’s not enough options.”
The food park will provide space for a whole range of food service companies. A coffee vendor will sell drinks out of the old C-Tran ticket booth. Food trucks will be parked on the brick-covered grounds. A taproom will feature at least one tap dedicated to each brewery in Vancouver. And an old shipping container is being retrofitted to house a commercial kitchen that is larger than in a typical food truck—but smaller and cheaper to rent than a brick and mortar restaurant.
Johnson and Mickle intend to build more of these shipping container kitchens in a second phase as the food park grows.
Tenants at the Columbia Food Park will get more than just a space to cook and serve food. Rental fees at the park include brand consulting and website design—features that Mickle and Johnson hope will mitigate some of the risk for new restaurateurs. An August 2005 study published in Cornell Hospitality Quarterly titled “Why Restaurants Fail” found that 26 percent of new restaurants go out of business in the first year. Small, independent businesses appear to be more vulnerable to closure than franchised restaurants.
“We can focus on the architecture around them, the marketing and SEO (search engine optimization) and design… so they can really, truly focus on what they’re passionate about,” Mickle said.
Starting small, thinking big
A crowdfunding attempt earlier in the year failed to meet the pair’s goals, so the project is being funded by Mickle’s savings and a small business loan. Mickle said he is looking to attract local investors.
So far, the pair has a handful of tenants including a barbecue fusion endeavor for the first shipping container kitchen. Mickle and Johnson said one sign of success would be if their tenants eventually outgrow the food park and move into permanent spaces downtown. In this way, the pair is hoping that their business can help spur a more colorful food scene in Vancouver.
After he left Clark College, Mickle worked at a car dealership and then in banking. Realizing his path was becoming too conventional for his liking, he moved to Korea with his wife and finished his bachelor’s degree online. The year spent living abroad was one of several overseas experiences that cemented Mickle’s belief that the best way to understand a culture is through its food, drink and entertainment.
“When I go someplace, I want to know, ‘what do they eat here? What do they drink? How do they have fun?’ I believe those are the real keys to recognizing a culture and a community,” Mickle said. “It’s not an exaggeration when I say that some of the best experiences in my life have been traveling to different places and eating the local foods.”
Lily Raff McCaulou is a journalist living in Portland, Ore. She is the author of “Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner,” which the San Francisco Chronicle named one of the best books of 2012. She has written for The New York Times and The Atlantic.