Family builds restaurant with shipping containers, trend to grow nationallyJune 10, 2017
For the Duncan family, business is a way of life. Omar and Gina Duncan have raised their kids: Justin, Austin, and Kaitlyn, to think out of the box and never limit their creative minds. Perhaps thinking ‘out the box’ gave them the idea to build a restaurant out of shipping boxes.
Their family project is not only a new business but they just may have created a new trend. The Duncans took two shipping containers (the big carts you usually see on the back of diesels), and made two cafes in the New Orleans 7th Ward. They called their new location… ‘The Box Spot’. Sitting adjacent to the I-10 ramp on Claiborne Ave. in New Orleans, the colorful containers demand your attention. As beautiful as they look today, Omar Duncan says he remembers when they were just empty shipping boxes.
“We bought the containers and as a family we cleaned them, painted them, and discussed how we wanted them to look. My kids are innovative and they are brilliant thinkers. This is their idea and concept and we all worked together to make it a reality.” They bought the containers and worked on them for 13 months in a 12,000 sq ft warehouse in New Orleans before bringing the large shipping boxes to the 7th Ward landsite.
“My wife and the kids were over excited about developing the concept. That was the easy part. The hard part was painting a picture to get the idea approved by the city. In 2017, it is still hard to get people to see any vision that they haven’t seen done before,” he says. The idea is so new that Omar had to hire lawyers, architects, and civil engineers just to make sure the structure complied with local coding laws. Even with all that intel they were constantly met with opposition.
“We knew we’d run into opposition but some of the stuff we had to deal with was due more to lawmakers not opening their minds to the possibilty of something new and different,” said Omar. “As cultural and diverse as New Orleans is we still have to open our minds more and think out the box. I am sure any great idea faced opposition when it began but once people are exposed to it they can now see and begin to work with you. I am confident that our city will work with us moving forward,” he said.
Duncan and his wife are no strangers to business though. Omar’s grandfather owns Rhodes Funeral Home, one of the oldest Black Funeral Homes in Louisiana. “My grandfather taught me business. He worked until he was 81 years old and I have taught my kids what he and my father taught me,” said Omar. His father operated Jackson Marshall Funeral Home in Houston, TX but growing up in New Orleans, he admits he was, “Paw Paw’s boy”, without any doubt. “My grandfather actually sat me on his knee and taught me entrepreneurship as a kid. He taught me about counting money and paying people for their hardwork. He was teaching me this stuff while my friends were playing ball in the streets.”
Omar says one lesson his grandfather taught him has become his personal motivation. “Never lose hunger for success. Becoming content is a weakness.” He says with all of his family’s business success, “we still haven’t arrived.”
He and his wife have been teaching their children entrepreneurship and to think as owners since they were kids. Their popularity in the city grew locally when they opened J’s Frozen Treats and J’s Seafood Dock in the French Market, both named after their oldest son, Justin. “We create roles for each person in the family. We all own it. Not one person in our family has another more important role than another one. Each person is expected to play their part effectively. My kids don’t work for me. We are all partners in a company that we own together,” explained Omar.
He and Gina have been married 21 years but they have been together for 28 years. They had Justin when Gina was just 15 years old. Naming their companies after him reminds them of their beginning. “Justin is the face of our brand. He is creative genius. Our other kids are just as brilliant and they have no problem with J carrying the brand name. They understand why,” said Gina Duncan. She says she is equally proud of all her kids. “Austin has a degree in Physics from Hamline University. He is our Personal Assistant and works hard to hold all of this together,” said Gina. “Our daughter, Kaitlyn, is in school to be a doctor at Xavier University. She contributes to the family brand in multiple ways.”
Once the ‘container cafe’ ideas were approved by the city they were brought to the Claiborne Ave. location. Two separate containers parallel to each other with a beautiful deck connecting them to create two cafes in one. The deck is very colorful with comfortable seating and multi-colored umbrellas hovering above the whole patio-like area. The container on the left side of the deck is a cafe called, “The Fresh Side”, which serves up sandwiches and wraps at very reasonable prices. The right side of the platform is the other container which houses, J’s Creole Wingery, serving wings with many different flavors and many more popular hot grilled appetizers.
Both containers have air. Customers have a choice of eating inside or enjoy the shaded patio in between the containers under the bright sunshine. Waitresses will bring your food to you or you may pick it up from either counter. There are two separate bathrooms on the deck for customers near a beautiful flower bed display in the welcome area of the deck.
Omar Duncan says the city gave him many excuses why he shouldn’t pursue with his idea. They told me, “It doesn’t fit the architectual design of the city.” He says they also told him, “there isn’t a demand for a business like this.” City officials may have missed the mark on this one because since the grand-opening on June 7 there hasn’t been a slow moment on either side of ‘The Box Spot’. At times, it’s so busy that there is a line waiting to order.
Duncan says he is not surprised at all about the response to the business. People who don’t live in an area always assume they know what’s best for an area. “Ultimately, the people are always telling you what they need in their community. Often their vocies are unheard.” Omar not only believed in his idea but he and his family bought a warehouse and began the Duncan Container Group. They are already planning to build more in New Orleans but they also expect to eventually franchise the idea around the country.
“One of the biggest surprises of being a visionary is you forget… God shows it to you before he shows it to everyone else. They won’t instantly see what you see. But as long as you see it, you can keep discovering ways to make it happen.”
The Box Spot is located at the 1700 Block of North Claiborne Ave in New Orleans. J’s Creole Wingery can be reached at 504-309-9444. The Fresh Side can be reached at 504-309-8888.