Birch Bread founder Lucie Steel shares top tips from her years as a shipping container microbaker.
Running a microbakery in a shipping container gives you flexibility to work around your home life. If you have a garden you can fit one into, it will also be your shortest ever commute to work!
Planning: Permission isn’t required in England as containers are classed as temporary buildings but do speak to your local authority planning department before you order one. My planning officer just wanted to know whether it could be seen from the road or if I had any neighbours who might object. I said no and pointed out that many local farms had one in their yards so nothing else to do on that front.
Health and hygiene: Speak to your local authority food safety or environmental health officer (EHO) and involve them in all of your plans. If you keep them in the loop they should help you a lot. EHOs like shipping containers as they are self-contained, pretty much rodent-proof and easy to keep tidy. Make sure that walls, floors and all other surfaces are easy to clean. You will need a sink for washing hands and another for equipment. If you think you will want or need to open the door in summer then invest in a good, heavyweight chain door screen to keep insects out. I also had a fixed screen on one window to allow me to open it for air flow.
Size: Go as large as you can afford as you WILL need the space. What looks huge to begin with will - very quickly - seem very small! It’s pretty snug inside, so plan your space carefully and all things are possible. Containers are usually only eight feet wide by eight feet high (less if well insulated) and mine was 22 feet long. I wish I had gone longer but as well as baking, I also taught classes of four students at a time in there!
Shell or shell out: You can buy an empty shell very cheaply and do it all yourself, though be sure to add windows or you’ll feel like you’re in a prison cell! Otherwise you can pay more for a container already fitted out with flooring, windows, insulation, electrics and plumbing, as mine (a former works canteen) had. Choose one with double doors at one end if you can. Although this can limit how you lay out your space, it will make it easier to get any big bits of kit in and out.
Utilities: Make sure you factor in the cost of hooking up electricity, water, waste water and maybe also gas. These can be seriously costly to install and take a long time to get booked in so make sure you check out what you need before starting your project and get onsite quotes. You can run lots of good microbakery equipment on a single phase, domestic electricity supply but if you want to go big then you may need three phase. Your equipment supplier will advise.
Delivery: Measure your site carefully to be sure the container will fit and check that a small lorry crane can offload it to the exact spot. As long as the ground it sits on is level and not waterlogged, you might not need concrete foundations - railway sleepers could be okay. Don’t get your container delivered across grass after lots of rain! We had two weeks of wet weather before delivery and the lorry wouldn’t leave the hard standing, so the box sat on our lawn, right in front of the sitting room window for two days while I cried a lot and told my husband it would be alright in the end.
Heat and moisture: Baking bread and using steam creates a lot of condensation when that hot, damp air hits cold metal, so you will need an extraction system or at least very good ventilation. Make sure your fridge has as much ventilation as possible - don’t skimp on this bit of kit and get a servicing contract set up the minute it arrives. Also be prepared to insulate the outside of your container as well as the inside. You will become VERY aware of the weather: It is HOT in the summer and COLD in the winter. You will learn how to adjust your techniques accordingly, especially for sourdough, which will help teach you to be a really good baker!
Equipment: Measure very carefully before ordering and make sure you can fit everything through the door. Whether you buy second hand or new, be very, VERY sure that each supplier’s after sales service is EXEMPLARY. The day that a big order is due is not the time to discover that nobody picks up the phone at the company who sold you the oven that just broke down. Get recommendations from established bakers.
Storage: As space is very limited, you may need to store flour elsewhere, such as a garden shed or garage. Invest in sturdy, watertight and rodent-proof containers that each holds an unopened 25kg flour sack, rather than having to decant it. The flour will keep better and your EHO will be happier, particularly if they’re repurposed containers. I bought empty mango chutney drums that have screw on lids. They are brilliant – durable, washable and SO cheap compared to other containers that size. Twelve years later I am still using them in the bakery.
If after a few years your circumstances change or you simply decide microbakery’s not for you, your shipping container should have a good second hand value. That is unless someone else in your family sees it as a potential new shed and moves their stuff in!
Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 47, July 2021
In 2018, Lucie moved Birch Bread from her garden to the high street in Pangbourne, Berkshire. At the time of publication in 2021, she employs nine people.
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