Modular Construction Makes Its Way To Oil Field Hospitality
Out in the West Texas oil fields, a culinary revolution is rising. Where there was once chicken fried steak seven days a week, there is now sashimi and sous vide chicken.
The trick: modular construction. Iron Culinary Solutions is using the design technique to bring hospitality in all its forms to workers who need a break, driving employee retention and productivity in one of the world’s most competitive workplaces.
C.D. Manriquez comes from the culinary world where hospitality, not efficiency, is the focus. In Houston, he operates Calle Onze with a stake in five other restaurants. When his friends in the energy industry would come back to Houston after trips to the oil fields, he was always surprised by what he heard. Housing conditions were poor and the food was even worse.
He founded Iron Culinary Solutions in 2011 to address both, using modular, off-site prefabrication to build housing units and bring big city flavors to disrupt the world of oil field workforce housing.
Oil field employees work 12-hour shifts in grueling conditions. At the end of a long day, they want a good meal and a comfortable bed. But in an industry driven by cost, that is not always easy to come by. Oil field workers have come to not expect much from workforce housing, which often feels like barracks, but that is changing.
“We disrupted this industry. We walked into an industry doing something the same way, we completely changed the game," Manriquez said.
ICS is building workforce housing that feels like a hotel.
Iron Culinary Solutions opened its first lodge in 2012. The company quickly went from 200 beds to over 1,000. Since then, ICS has provided food and housing solutions for the biggest oil field companies in the world, including Halliburton, Baker Hughes and Schlumberger.
ICS can start with the land, build the infrastructure, manage the personnel or any combination of the three. After being contracted by the energy firm, the company partners with modular construction firms to meet each specific need.
Manriquez’s operation earned him the nickname “Mission Impossible” from Halliburton. In November 2015, he got a call from Halliburton wanting him to provide meals for its workers in Eagle Ford, Texas, on Jan. 1. With no kitchen or infrastructure in place, the guys at Halliburton said it was impossible.
“I said where there’s a will there's a way,” Manriquez said.
He sourced several insulated shipping containers and created a workspace for fabrication at one of his other business, an automotive facility. He put together two teams to work 12-hour shifts to keep work going around the clock to install plumbing, electrical, vent hoods and every other necessity of a modern kitchen. The containers were shipped out three weeks later, where they were roofed and sided together with a modular dining hall capable of serving 600 meals a day. He delivered on the contract three days ahead of schedule.
The work did not just earn him a nickname. Halliburton awarded Iron Culinary Solutions its Red Hat Award, the highest award the company can give to its suppliers.
In addition to providing each worker with a private room and bathroom, ICS will take care of laundry, snacks, repairs and everything in between.
"I know it sounds funny, but we were the first to standardize elongated toilets in the oil field,” Manriquez said.
In earlier years, workforce housing was purely focused on the most cost-effective option. That means smaller toilets to accommodate smaller bathrooms.
“A 275-pound oil field worker doesn’t fit on those little toilets, we scrapped that. We put the biggest toilet we can in every bathroom,” Manriquez said. “It seems trivial to us but for these guys in the field it means everything.”
ICS also pioneered the “Carb Line,” a second food service line that serves up carb classics like pizza and baked potatoes all day, every day. The idea is a huge hit for oil field workers who typically consume 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day.
“These guys actually do consume that much food. I’ve seen guys put down three steaks and two fully loaded potatoes,” Manriquez said. “It’s all you can eat.”
ICS’ business has shrunk since its peak of around 1,000 beds. ICS has struggled during the oil downturn and now operates around 600 beds with roughly 65 employees. And the business model has attracted imitators, like Target Logistics, which will soon have more than 3,200 beds in the Permian Basin with close to 10,000 beds total.
But ICS is working on adding even more amenities to raise the bar again, hoping to debut an updated product in the next year to remain competitive.
"I'm not at liberty to say what we're working on. Our competitors would love to know," Manriquez said. "It’s not that our competitors can't do it, it’s that they don't have the vision.”