Business alumna founded the Iron District, an innovative dining and retail court made of shipping containers
By Stacy Downs
Big things come in small packages. Rachel Kennedy Cuevas’ new business development is proof of the proverb.
Cuevas (B.B.A. ’98) is the brains behind Iron District, a new restaurant-retail destination made of 18 shipping containers in an industrial neighborhood at 16th and Iron in ever-growing downtown North Kansas City. The container park is a rare hybrid of two popular fast-casual dining concepts: food trucks and food halls.
Cuevas takes a small group on a tour of the containers, where red, green, yellow and blue boxes — some double-stacked — form a rectangle where picnic tables are arranged inside the center for communal eating.
“There’s not much like this in the U.S. except in Las Vegas,” Cuevas says. “And the businesses there are mostly bigger brands.”
The Iron District containers — including one with a rooftop bar — offers plenty of home-grown eating and beverage options to choose from: vegan, ice cream, coffee and even an avocado bar. And it’s her own Cuban fusion restaurant, Plantain District — originally a food truck — that led to the Iron District in the first place.
Cuevas founded Plantain District after eating a Cuban sandwich with her husband, Yvan Cuevas (B.B.A. ’98, MBA ’00), who had lived in Cuba. The two met while they were students at the Bloch School of Management. After taking a few bites, she had a revelation: “I can make something better.”
“The food truck thrived because I had the business education and hired chefs to do the cooking — a recipe for success,” Cuevas says. “UMKC, through the Bloch School, gave me the business background, and that’s why I’m now a developer working with other entrepreneurs.”
After its creation in 2014, Plantain District motored along swiftly, catering at food truck rallies, corporate events and weddings. But the nature of the business made Cuevas anxious: a livelihood based on an expensive kitchen that could be sidelined by a flat tire.
Though her fears never played out, they led to the Iron District concept. The size of shipping containers are roughly the same dimensions as food trucks and don’t include the threat of engine failure. She pitched the concept to North Kansas City leaders and was greeted with enthusiasm.
“It means collaborating with others,” Cuevas says. “It means fostering a community, which is one of my favorite parts of business.”
After more than two years of working on the container park, Iron District finally opened in October 2019. Vivid art murals greet customers from the sides of the containers, along with a diversity of culinary options. Cuevas fervently talks about future plans, including adding walkways between containers.
Cuevas considers Iron District a proof-of-concept incubator for startups. The restaurants and businesses, including clothing boutiques and a wellness center with a rotating schedule of yoga and massage practitioners, have short-term leases. One container is devoted to conference space and can be rented hourly to entrepreneurs for meetings.
“If any businesses outgrow their space, I’ll consider that a win,” Cuevas says. “It means they can attribute some of their success to what we’ve built at the Iron District.”
Iron District: A menu of options
- 3andMe Boutique: Fashion-forward women’s clothing
- Avobite: An avocado restaurant with both carnivore and vegan-friendly dishes
- B-Rad’s: Comfort food from around the globe such as loco moco, a Puerto Rican pork chop
- Boheme: Artisan crafts and hand-cut soaps
- Kind Food: Vegan food with earth-friendly practices
- Morning Day Café: Breakfasts and pastries
- Plantain District: Cuevas’ Cuban-inspired food
- Safe Bakes: Cookies and pastries baked with those who have allergies in mind
- Snow Buh by Ice Cream BAE: Unusualflavor options
- Tiki Huna: Classic tiki cocktails, original drinks and local beer and wine
- Urban Café: Everything from a quinoa burger to a lobster grilled cheese sandwich
- Wasteland Society: Edgy T-shirts