Cargo Worthy: A glimpse inside the Iron District shipping containers that feed North Kansas City
If you don’t already know what the Iron District is, then hearing the name might cause you to picture exposed brick buildings, railroad tracks, and/or an industrialized wasteland that’s only commonly frequented by blue-collar workers. Your mental image would be partially right— it is made up of repurposed shipping containers. But they’re far from being rusty, graffiti-covered safety hazards that have fallen into disuse.
The Iron District’s colorful containers house twelve locally-owned food and retail businesses.
“When the original co-founders were creating the Iron District, they thought of using shipping containers as an in-between space,” says General and Marketing Manager Madison Moore. “We can still bring on small businesses, but they don’t have to be traveling food trucks. We also don’t have to jump straight into building a brick-and-mortar that can be an expensive time commitment that’s not accessible to everyone.”
Since opening in 2019, the Iron District has created a space for a rotating cast of budding Kansas City businesses, which now includes Vegan Crave Burgers & Bakery, Meltbox Ice Cream, and The Rolling Garden.
This summer, a new addition joined the container park’s family: Iron Grill. It’s the Iron District’s first in-house project, meaning that it’s owned and operated by the same team that owns the property as a whole.
“We were able to incorporate what we’ve learned from our vendors,” Moore says. “We have a lot of factories and blue-collar jobs in the area. We wanted something that was the right price point for the workers to come up and grab something for lunch. Smash burgers are quick, and it’s easy to collaborate with other vendors.”
An early (and delicious) example of this partnership is a recent weekend special. The Elephant Wings Smash combines the Indian fusion of neighboring vendor Elephant Wings with a classic burger patty. It was introduced on Friday, Aug. 4, and sold out the next day.
In addition to managing social media and day-to-day operations, Moore has her own container, and it’s delightfully Barbiecore: women’s apparel boutique Madhouse Clothing.
“I had Madhouse first, and then I took on a part-time marketing role in Iron District,” she says. “When I became full-time, it allowed the flexibility for me to do both. It makes it easy for me to greet the musicians when they arrive or host pop-ups outside of my container.”
Moore’s advice for first-time (or repeat) visitors is simple: Try everything.
“Grab some drinks and appetizers from one place, and get a couple of entrees from two different places. That’s the idea with the vendors—none of them have crossover items,” she says. “They’re all in their own niche. It gives you the opportunity to come and enjoy all different types of food in one spot.”
The containers cluster around ample picnic table seating, and an upper patio level offers extra shade as well as an indoor coworking space with free WiFi.
There’s also a live music lineup every Friday and Saturday night from May to October. Local musician Sam Harvey has performed frequently at the Iron District since its opening.
“I think it’s one of the coolest concepts for a commercial venue I’ve ever seen,” Harvey says. “The food and drinks are great, and every single staff member I’ve ever spoken to has been warm and welcoming.”
Meet the Vendors
Roman Raya owns Taco Tank, which serves up traditional Mexican American street food with a side of mouth-watering Tank sauce. Although he was originally interested in operating a container in the Iron District several years ago, the lack of availability put the plan on pause until a space opened up shortly after Taco Tank’s 2021 launch in Parlor.
“We were a food truck before [renting the container], so it felt like a good step to move from what was essentially a taco cart to something more substantial, yet not make the full leap to a brick-and-mortar,” Raya says. “The Iron District is a great summer venue. It’s great for families, and it definitely doesn’t hurt to see all the dogs out here, either. It gives us the freedom to really run our own menu and have a sense of ownership while still having a community aspect.”
Taco Tank offers three options for street tacos (Carnitas, Adobo Chicken, or Old School ground beef) as well as Tank Nachos and Esquites (grilled street corn with chipotle mayo, cotija cheese, chile, and lime).
“We have a small menu, and we keep it small so that we can focus on the quality and the execution of the food,” Raya says. “The carnitas are always my favorite. Growing up and having those on Sundays was really special to me. I definitely take pride in preparing those tacos. The way that we prepare the carnitas—it’s a very traditional method.”
The adobo chicken, on the other hand, is juicy, well-marinated, and served in cheese-crisped, gluten-free corn tortillas with chihuahua cheese, cilantro, and Taco Tank’s savory secret sauce.
The Tank’s limited menu has proven so successful that Raya and his team opened up a full-service restaurant this spring. Barbacoa fuses traditional Mexican cuisine with American-style barbecue in the form of brisket taquitos and smoked turkey with molé.
The Sourdough Spot
Like many people, Maegan Vaughan received some unexpected time to explore niche interests when the world ground to a halt during the initial COVID-19 pandemic.
In the early days of the virus’s takeover, sourdough began trending on TikTok as a practical alternative to budgeting for bread on weekly grocery store runs. Vaughan and her children spent plenty of quality time baking together, and she figured she was more than capable of providing hearty loaves for family and friends.
“I love watching the dough become a big, beautiful loaf at the end of the bake,” Vaughan says. “It’s a long process, but it’s a hands-off, no-knead recipe, so you’re in and out. It’s been a great creative outlet.”
In March 2021, Vaughan launched her business online with Etsy. She converted her garage into a workspace and began delivering local orders less than a year later.
There were three major factors in Vaughan’s decision to apply for a space in the Iron District: budget, size, and foot traffic. The converted shipping container that houses The Sourdough Spot is similar to Vaughan’s previous workspace, and it already included large work tables and a fridge, which she would have to fund on her own if she moved into a blank slate brick-and-mortar. From her deliveries, she learned that most of her local customers are concentrated in North Kansas City. Plus, the broad appeal of an outdoor community space and food court attracts consistent crowds.
“Having this location here has grown my business even faster than I was imagining,” she says.
In addition to selling plain, focaccia, and flavored loaves, the container offers Fat Beans cold brew coffee, grilled cheese, peanut butter and jelly, topped toast, and cheesy garlic breadsticks with marinara.
Vaughan is even able to offer classes at her current location. Next month, she will host “Sourdough Foccacia: Learn to Make, Dress, and Bake” from 5-7 p.m. Sept. 10 and “Sourdough Bread 101: Learn the Essentials for Making Sourdough Bread” from 5-8 p.m. Sept. 24. Tickets can be purchased on The Sourdough Spot’s Linktree for $50 and $60 respectively.
Ameet Malhotra didn’t always plan on becoming a restaurateur.
Malhotra moved to Kansas City in 2001 to work for Hallmark as a graphic designer. His penchant for creating mouth-watering food began with a simple desire to cook the meals he missed from home.
“I started experimenting with a few recipes which my grandma had given me,” he says. “My dad lived in New York at the time, and he had never cooked either, but he was in the same boat as me. We both started cooking, and we would exchange recipes and different ideas over the phone.”
As he improved, Malhotra began hosting dinner parties for his friends, which eventually blossomed into a side business as a locally-renowned private chef.
“I go into people’s homes, and I bring everything— the food, the linens, the flowers, the plates, the glassware, silverware, and the music,” he says.
In February 2021, Malhotra was laid off from Hallmark. He pivoted to restaurant work with friend and fellow chef Anourom Thomson at the American-Laos restaurant Anousone. In October 2022, he expressed interest to the Iron District’s team about opening an Elephant Wings container and signed the lease only a few weeks later.
“We buy the baguettes from Farm to Market, but nothing else is bought ready-made—the tikka masala sauce, the chutney, the aioli that goes with the fries. Everything is made fresh by me,” Malhotra says.
The proof is in the pudding—or, in this case, the well-seasoned menu. For $15, customers can sink their teeth into a half sandwich (the Bombay-Mi cumin chicken, the Paneer Tikka, or—Malhotra’s personal favorite—the Unholy Cow) with Tandoori fries and Iced Masala Chai.
The Tikka Masala Poutine ($15) is a twist on Québec’s signature meal. Fries are smothered in tikka masala sauce, yogurt, scallions, jalapeños, curried paneer, and cilantro with the customer’s choice of chicken, beef, or paneer. (Hint: there’s no way to go wrong here.)
The Iron District is located at 1599 Iron St., North Kansas City, MO 64116.
All photos by Brooke Tramel