Why Granville Island Got Shipping Containers All Wrong

Granville Island has been a long standing location for foodies in Vancouver, BC for decades.  From excellent grab n go options, to bakeries, cheese shops, fish mongers, and the always delicious Lee’s Donuts; tourists and local residents alike inter-mingle among the many stalls and shops of purveyors.  The operators of Granville Island, CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation), commissioned a major planning study back in 2016 titled “Granville Island 2040”.  This produced a vision for how Granville Island can transform itself over the next twenty years.

One of the first “quick wins” of the Granville Island 2040 plan is the recently opened Popina Canteen, a shipping container food stall.  Located next to the Granville Island Public Market and with views of the downtown peninsula, Popina Canteen is a food destination for all those coming to Granville Island.  Operated and run by the “who’s who” of the Vancouver culinary scene (Angus An, Robert Belcham, Hamid Salimian, and Joël Watanabe), these four chefs have elevated Vancouver’s dining scene for many years with some of my favorite restaurants including Campagnolo and Kissa Tanto.  But something went wrong with the positioning of Popina Canteen.

PopinaCanteen_GeorgiaStraight

Popina Canteen – Image Source: Georgia Straight

The location and potential clientele of Popina Canteen screams fast casual food, but what you will find on the menu ranges from a $12 toast bar, to $26 Lobster Rolls, Seafood trays that can run over $200 per order, custom cocktails, and bottles of wine.  Now I am all for local, sustainable, and quality food, but the majority of the menu at Popina Canteen would be better placed in a full-service restaurant with prices such as these.  The food I did try was ok, but nothing to entice a second visit.  Vancouver has the second highest housing prices in North America, and punches above its weight in sales of luxury goods, so Popina Canteen may just be a representation of the direction Vancouver has gone in recent years, catering to upscale tastes.

Looking at successful models of shipping container food stands in North America, there are two typical methods of implementation.  The first is creating an incubator for aspiring chefs, or a gateway point for young entrepreneurs looking to start their first food-based business.  The second is partnering with local businesses who are expanding their business operations.

I was in Toronto at the start of July and visited the city’s  primary shipping container food market and a recently opened outdoor market that draws parallels to Popina.  The first, Market 707 at Scadding Court focuses on the first typology.  The shipping containers along Dundas Street creates a pedestrian mall of food & beverage outlets (along with a few retail good shops).  It is operated by the Scadding Court Community Centre, and offers a low-rent opportunity for entrepreneurs to start their culinary-based business.  Nom Nom Nom Poutine has been a staple of Market 707 for many years, and offers what I think is the best Poutine in Toronto, with a basic poutine only costing only $6!  Other purveyors include Thai cuisine, Colombian street food, and traditional Afghani dishes.  Most items throughout Market 707 are $10 and under.

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Market 707 at Scadding Court – Image Source: Architecture Lab

While not in shipping containers, a similar (albeit larger) food market recently opened in front of downtown’s Union Station.  Called “Union Summer”, the outdoor food market is operational between July 1 and August 19 and offers a huge communal seating area.  The synergy between catering to locals and tourists in a high profile location is similar to Popina.  Union Summer has partnered with local restaurants such as WVRST, Harry’s, and The Carbon Bar, among others to provide locals and tourists with a one-stop shop to many unique Toronto-based restaurants.  Each vendor carries approximately 3 to 5 items, ranging from burgers and Cuban sandwiches, to dessert and alcoholic beverages.  The only unfortunate thing is that Union Summer only operates during the summer, but it is understandable with Toronto’s winters!

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Union Summer in Toronto, ON

The last shipping container food market I wanted to touch on is Steel Craft, operating out of Long Beach, California.  I won’t go into too much detail since I have profiled it several times on this blog.  Steel Craft acts as a community gathering spot, and has been so popular, the urban eatery concept is expanding into two more Southern California cities.  The original location covers a wide-array of food options such as coffee, beer, ramen, and pizza.  The locations of Steel Craft place focus more towards local residents than tourists (although I am sure they still get plenty from out-of-town).

So Popina Canteen.  Intriguing concept showcasing Vancouver’s dining scene?  Expensive tourist trap?  You be the judge.  I personally would have loved to see a concept that was more inclusive to a variety of incomes and tastes.  Popina Canteen can has only been open for a month and can still be great, but I believe the concept itself needs work.  For now, I’ll probably stick to my poutine and empanadas every time I visit Toronto instead.

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