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Shipping Containers Keep It Cool

By Jenny Callison, posted May 19, 2023
Bryan Kristof and Travis Sumners, of Craftspace, in the company’s warehouse in Wilmington. Craftspace Commercial creates refrigerated containers from unused cargo containers. (Photo by Madeline Gray)
Bryan Kristof, Gregg Howell and their team of cargo unit crafters were already churning out revamped (they prefer the term “upcycled”) 20-foot and 40-foot used shipping containers for a variety of uses when they met Travis Sumners.

“I approached them when I moved to Wilmington just under three years ago,” said Sumners, who has a background in helping the military and other clients meet needs for temporary storage and operating quarters.

“I used to set up mobile cities for disaster recovery and for housing refugees at U.S. military bases abroad,” he said. “There was a shortage of storage and refrigerated containers. I saw an opportunity for reefers.”

Reefer is the industry term for a refrigerated storage unit. Sumners argued that transforming used shipping containers into sophisticated cold storage units was a logical next step for the company, which was finding a market for upcycled shipping containers with individuals who wanted a backyard tiny house, startup retail space or cost-efficient office. The flexibility and popularity of units in Wilmington’s growing Cargo District demonstrates that cargo containers can dress up and go many places. Their chilled brethren could do the same, Sumners told the Craftspace co-founders.

As of April, offshoot Craftspace Commercial had produced 10 40-foot refrigerated units available for short- or long-term rental, provide secure storage and have ground-level access. They come equipped to plug directly into the renter’s electrical source, although sometimes an electrician may need to increase the capacity of that power source. If the reefer is in a remote location, it will come with a generator, which runs on diesel fuel.

Sumners said that there is a ready market for these reefers.

One market is food storage.

“The East Coast, focusing more on the Carolinas in this example, will be experiencing growth from more agricultural industry companies offering more [seasonal] crop varieties from the migration of West Coast . . . growers,” he said. “The more sustainable conditions, consistent weather and fewer natural disasters are desirable conditions for future growth.

“I like to mention there are seafood and meat processing storage needs as well,” he continued. “There are many amazing restaurants and food businesses in the area and storage for quality meat, seafood and poultry is always needed in our region for locals as well as temporary storage for imports and exports.”

The company has its eye on two related emerging markets as well.

“There is a developing demand in medical, pharmaceuticals and biotech needs that continues to grow in the outer areas of Wilmington and Raleigh,” Sumners said. “These industries require a substantial investment and specialized facilities due to the cost and sensitivity of their products.  

“Wilmington also has a significant chemical and petrochemical company presence. There are refrigerated/chiller needs for products as well as off-site laboratory locations that need to be accommodated for storage.”  

Portable refrigerated storage containers allow companies to set up at remote facility locations and provide additional flexible overflow refrigerated storage outside their buildings. 

Sumners points to the growing volume of goods passing through the Port of Wilmington, citing a more than 400% growth in refrigerated import and export cargo.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in the [port] infrastructure to accommodate the demand at the Wilmington port,” he said. “That investment commitment clearly shows the confidence in the demand and future needs for refrigerated storage.”

Craftspace does purchase new shipping containers, but most of their units are used, but in great shape, according to Sumners. They often are built in China and knock around the world on cargo ships for a while before being retired.

“Our suppliers are on-site in major ports and screen out the inventory to our specific needs and cost points,” Sumners said. “We have a wonderful team that services our units and provides reliable logistics to deliver our product. Craftspace has all the metal fabrication capabilities to customize or modify the containers as needed. We can utilize and scale our same supplier sources for both Craftspace and Craftspace Commercial.”


921 Princess St., Wilmington

No. of employees: 6 to 9; much of the work is contracted out

Year founded: Craftspace in 2018; its Craftspace Commercial division in 2022

Top local officials: Bryan Kristof, co-founder and CEO; Gregg Howell, co-founder and COO; Travis Sumners, business development manager

Company description: Craftspace upcycles existing cargo containers for use as dwellings, offices and shops. Craftspace Commercial makes cargo containers into refrigerated storage units.

Description and/or examples of products made locally: While the cargo containers are mostly retired from service and were made elsewhere, the upfitting is done locally.

What’s your target market? Sumners: “For Craftspace, it’s anything from demand for ADUs (alternative dwelling units) to the need for remote or space-efficient offices to a home for a start-up retailer. Craftspace Commercial caters to any industry that needs mobile or temporary refrigerated space.” 

What’s next for you? Sumners: “Expansion. We really want to build locally. For Craftspace Commercial, there is a big agricultural demand. The recent Cold Chain Summit was an amazing conference and proved there are going to be some big [cold storage] players coming into town. The biggest shippers were represented and they are putting money into the port. A couple of pharmaceutical companies are building facilities near Wilmington and will need very high-tech cold storage.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: To be considered for the Greater Wilmington Business Journal’s MADE feature, contact [email protected].
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