WILMINGTON — There’s a lot going on in an old metal Quonset hut at the corner of 16th and Queen Street, dubbed the ‘Outpost’ by its creators and home to the city’s newest craft beer bar, the Alcove Beer Garden.
One explanation was given by Chris Batten, owner of Bespoke Coffee (which opened its second location in the front of the building) and brother of Billy Batten (who owns the bar in the back).
“This is business in the front, party in the back,” Batten said, noting the layout is designed for “meetings in the mornings by coffee and in the afternoons by beer.”
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On the west side of the building next to the bar is a cluster of five shipping containers stacked on top of each other. One is tipped up at an angle, resting on the top of another, and a wooden staircase inside leads to what will eventually become an upstairs patio above a start-up burger restaurant.
Front Street Brewery’s Ellie Craig, the new president of the Cape Fear Craft Beer Alliance, likened the place to the product of a child’s imagination.
“Let’s be real, this is grown men playing with shipping containers like they’re lego blocks,” Craig said. “It’s awesome.”
It’s all the creation of developer Leslie Smith, whose sprawling development of shipping container-themed apartments and start-ups southwest of the Ardmore neighborhood has become known as the Cargo District. He now has 85 commercial leases inside the development, he said, including businesses like End of Days Distillery, Queen Street Barber Shop, Coworx, Encore Magazine, and a mix of design and technology firms.
Several years ago Smith partnered with Chris Batten to turn the Quonset hut on 16th Street into an incubation hub. When they decided to put in a bar on the west end, they turned to Batten’s brother Billy, who runs Growler’s Tavern downtown.
A container outfitted as Bespoke’s new vegan bakery sits next to the bar, which itself is made on top of garden-style breeze blocks. Above that is a container Batten calls the ‘podcast room’, where hosts from shows like the “Drinkin’ Bros” and “Ross Patterson Revolution!” will broadcast live over customers downstairs. Another container sits above the coffee shop overlooking 16th Street, decked out as an office space for a start-up called Wide Open Technologies.
The shared space can be used by customers at the coffee shop, bakery, bar, hamburger restaurant, and two to three food trucks that will be parked outside. At least one of those spaces will be permanently reserved for a food truck, which, according to Billy Batten, is going to a guy who picked up an Airstream trailer in Florida.
“We got a lot of little things here,” Billy Batten said. “When it’s all said and done, you’ll come in and say, ‘Okay, you’re going to get a coffee, I’m going to get a beer,’ while another friend orders a hamburger. You can split up with your group and get whatever you want and come back in the middle and sit together.”
The hut can also be rented out at five-hour blocks for events like weddings, movie showings, and parties like Front Street Brewery’s upcoming 25th anniversary oyster roast. Michaela Batten — who stars on local radio show “Foz in the Morning” and is Chris Batten’s wife — will manage events.
The outdoor containers are still a work in progress, but according to Billy Batten, once finished they will be something special.
“When the patio will be done your mind will be blown,” he said. “Outdoor seating in Wilmington is primo — if you’ve got that, you’ve got something.”
Expanding the Cargo District
Nearby neighborhoods like Carolina Place and Ardmore are changing, with historic cottage homes getting uplifts and more and more young families moving into the area. But there aren’t a lot of bar options, and Smith hopes to tap into that demand while also keeping his eyes on the overall goal of the Cargo District — to provide affordable spaces for start-ups, and to expand the district east along Wrightsville Avenue towards Forest Hills.
“Forest Hills is a long-term, steady residential area,” Smith said. “It’s not going to change. You connect to it and that’s a good thing. That’s the idea.”
He said every project has in some way involved shipping containers, which he plans to continue going forward.
For Smith and the Batten brothers, the area’s up-and-coming status doesn’t mean businesses should be charged higher rent prices.
“That area is definitely changing,” Billy Batten said. “And part of that plan is to let it change at an affordable pace. We don’t want to set exorbitant rent rates and say, ‘Hope you make it.’”
“People think when you do something cool you have to upcharge all this money, but it’s not true,” Chris Batten added. “You don’t have to do that.”
He said the Outpost in particular is set up so that the burger restaurant or the food truck can test their products on a shared customer base, and move on to a larger brick-and-mortar restaurant if warranted — or stay put if the Outpost lifestyle suits them.
“That’s what [Smith] does,” Chris Batten said. “He affords everybody the ability to come in and get their shop going. It’s the underdog story.”
The Cargo District also includes nine 2-story apartment units made out of shipping containers, and Smith said plans have been approved for 13 three-story buildings in the area, although he’s not yet sure how much of that he’ll actually develop. But for now, he said the whole idea has some momentum.
“The Cargo District just works. It creates an appeal for people — I think, I hope. It seems to be working,” Smith said.
The Alcove Beer Garden and the Outpost building is located on 348 Hutchison Lane. View more pictures below:
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