By Neil Johnson - May 3rd 2023



 A Midwest chain known for its roast beef sandwiches and cheddar fries says it plans to build three new restaurants in Janesville and Beloit, but with a twist.

In what appears to be a first locally, the restaurants would be built out of metal shipping boxcars.

City of Janesville and city of Beloit building department and planning officials say they haven’t yet seen formal plans submitted by fast-casual restaurant chain Beef-a-Roo, although Janesville planning division records indicate that it did reach out to city planning officials late in 2022 to ask some preliminary zoning and development questions.

Beef-a-Roo said in an announcement Wednesday that it “plans” to build new locations in Beloit and Janesville, plus a third location in the Green County community of Monroe, although Beef-a-Roo didn’t indicate where exactly the three restaurants might be built or when.

According to Beef-a-Roo’s announcement, the 55-year-old Midwest chain intends to build all three new southern Wisconsin restaurants using repurposed metal modular containers in an “innovative” design that the company said would allow franchise operators to buy and operate at a lower cost.

Images Beef-a-Roo has shared with other media outlets since launching the new shipping container-centric building design show a smaller format restaurant. One location that recently opened in northeastern Michigan measured only about 800 square feet.

The Michigan Beef-a-Roo shown in company images has a three-season patio for outdoor dining, and a drive-thru, but no indoor seating.

The company has 17 restaurants throughout the Midwest, including locations scattered across the Rockford metro area. In its announcement, it said it intends to build 10 new stores nationwide, many potentially from shipping containers.

Beef-a-Roo’s announcement came through a third-party marketing firm that, among other services, says it helps its clients find local franchise operators. A sales representative at the firm did not immediately respond to a phone call and messages from a Gazette reporter.

T.J. Nee, the city of Beloit’s director of planning and building, said Beef-a-Roo hasn’t come forward with a plan he’s aware of, but he said Beloit doesn’t have any specific codes or ordinances that prohibit a developer building a restaurant out of shipping containers.

“Looking at the Beef-A-Roo model, it appears they use various siding and other decorative panels to cover the shipping containers, so it may not be an issue,” Nee said.

Janesville Planning Director Duane Cherek said the city heard from Beef-a-Roo late last year, although he characterized the conversations as preliminary and said the city hasn’t had contact with the chain since.

Cherek pointed out that many of the chain’s half-dozen restaurant locations in Rockford appear to have been built out in existing buildings that Beef-a-Roo or a franchisee appear to have renovated.

Like Nee, Cherek said he’s aware of no city rules specifically barring use of metal shipping containers to build permanent structures.

He said local and state building codes would dictate that any materials used in the building meet standards for strength and structural integrity, but there’s no law or rule precluding the use of recycled metal boxes as framing for buildings.

Cherek said he’s aware that developers nationally and globally have turned increasingly to the use of shipping containers in construction under the precept that it’s an environmentally responsible move. But he said Janesville has seen no past commercial or residential development proposals that would rely on metal modular containers as a building material.

“When the world is full of those (shipping containers) for international commerce, the resource is there. It’s just we haven’t ever had anything like that come across here at the city,” Cherek said. “If it does, we’d evaluate it like we do all projects.”

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