A person driving down Danny Scott Drive in New Haven could make the assumption that the cluster of gray-painted metal-sided buildings were just another run-of-the-mill self-storage business, but Top Gun Storage Solutions Founder and CEO Zach Zuroweste said there is much more to his business than initially meets the eye.
In fact, those “metal-sided buildings” are actually repurposed shipping containers — containers that likely traveled across oceans on cargo ships, then atop barges on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, aboard a railcar or semitruck on their way to New Haven.
“Initially we were just going to do self-storage with shipping containers, but it’s turned into quite a bit more,” Zuroweste said. “About 20 percent of our business is (on-site) self-storage, the rest is fabrication.”
In addition to self-storage customers, the containers are also gaining attention from new customers looking for “She Sheds” and “Man Caves,” which are increasing in popularity throughout the region.
They also make great offices, according to Zuroweste, who converted a container for Top Gun Storage’s office.
“On the outside it looks like a shipping container, but on the inside it looks a like a traditional office and that’s exactly the point,” Zuroweste said. “We’ve added electrical, heating, as well as windows to make this into a normal office.”
Plumbing also can be added.
The company’s latest new opportunity came in the form of a coveted Department of Defense contract in early October. Top Gun is currently transforming two shipping containers into offices for a military base in Naval Air Station Oceana near Virginia Beach, Virginia.
“That was a pretty big day for us,” said Zuroweste, who is a veteran of the Navy and a pilot with United Airlines.
“Getting a government contract is quite possibly the most difficult part of what we do because getting these contracts can be quite lucrative. It took us over a year and a half to get the first one,” said Zuroweste, who added that he now anticipates the government and military will be submitting more orders for the mobile offices. He declined to disclose the amount of the contracts.
In order to complete the Virginia base’s order, Zuroweste said Top Gun has partnered with local contractors, Innovative Construction Services and Zelch Welding, to transform the shipping containers into office spaces that will house up to five or six working spaces for the base. A local trucking company, Bockting Trucking, will deliver the containers to Virginia.
“Now that we are starting to win government contracts and things like that, we are going to be bringing additional work here to town, which has been a big goal of ours from the beginning,” said Zuroweste, who is a 1997 graduate of New Haven High School.
“Anytime we can use local businesses to do something here, then we are going to hire them,” said Zuroweste, adding that 63 different local businesses have been contracted by Top Gun since the company’s founding.
The company also plans to hire between five or 10 workers in the late spring or early summer of 2021 as it expands the fabrication portion of the business, which has until now been a family business with Zuroweste’s parents, Curt and Kathie Zuroweste working in the front office. The couple recently retired from owning the Colony House restaurant in New Haven.
Top Gun also is building a 3,600-square-foot temporary fabrication facility, made from shipping containers and a temporary roof, that once constructed will allow fabricators to continue to work through the winter months and inclement weather.
Expanding its fabrication operation is an important first step for Zuroweste as he considers fabricating tiny homes, another movement that is gaining popularity in large and small cities across the country.
“There is a ton of opportunity for tiny homes. One place in California just bought 100 containers to do exactly that for tiny homes for veterans,” Zuroweste said. “So we are looking at how can we do something similar, not just for veterans but maybe also for housing for the homeless.
Top Gun Storage opened in 2018 with financing from Citizen’s Bank following Zuroweste’s retirement from the military in 2015. The idea for the business stems from his experiences in the military, where he flew F-18 jets.
“As you travel the world with the military, you notice that shipping containers were being used for so many things, everything from self-storage, to homes and barracks for the military when our troops are out on forward operating bases, to homes for people who live in the Middle East. So while these shipping containers are used throughout the world, they are not used in the U.S. very much,” Zuroweste said.
“Right now, the container market is very tight and it is due to COVID-19,” Zuroweste said. He added, despite the tight market, he is still able to buy containers from Malaysia, China, Africa and Europe, and see them arrive within two months. The pandemic also has forced Top Gun to travel to Kansas City, Chicago and St. Louis to pick up its order of shipping containers.
An on-site 20-foot container rents for $67 per month, plus a $10 administrative fee, a cleaning fee and taxes. An on-site 40-feet rents for $107 per month. The company also offers rental rates for commercial businesses.
Top Gun partners with Bulk Container Group, a multi-national shipping container brokerage, which helps Top Gun purchase containers around the globe.
“We’re on Zoom calls nearly every morning with people in Switzerland and Germany talking about buying and moving shipping containers,” Zuroweste said. “It is kind of crazy that this company that we started here has now developed into something quite a bit larger. There is now not a part of the U.S. or the world that I can’t get a container from or to, which is pretty impressive.”