In mid-America, the food supply chain dips below the surface

In mid-America, the Food Supply Chain Dips Below the Surface

By: Thomas Gounley

In 1944, the U.S. government leased what the locals in a small riverfront town in eastern Kansas call “Atchison Caves.” It’s something of a misnomer, because the 127-acre site isn’t naturally occurring, but rather the results of a decades-long limestone mining operation in the bluffs along the Missouri River.

The country was in the midst of World War II, and the newly-created War Food Administration — precursor to today’s Farm Services Agency — converted a portion of the mine into a cooler, and proceeded to fill it with sides of beef, salt pork, butter and more. By 1949, it’s said there were, among other things, 20,493 tons of prunes and 8,872 tons of eggs. The feds went on to purchase the site, and as the country moved into the Cold War era, the storage focus shifted. The facility housed machinery needed for the production of weapons, to be mobilized if necessary.

Inside the tunnels of Subtropolis. Public Domain Image. 

Inside the tunnels of Subtropolis. Public Domain Image. 

But the food-centric era of the Atchison Storage Facility left a legacy. In Springfield, Missouri, Kraft Heinz delivers products by rail nightly to its space in a privately-owned mining operation. A seafood importer operates out of a similar site in St. Louis. A speciality foods company ages cheese below parking lots in Kansas City.

In the heart of the country, for some food companies, the supply chain briefly dips out of sight, below the surface of the earth.

Like Atchison, most of these underground facilities are former limestone mines hollowed out using the room and pillar method, which results in vast high-ceilinged clearings interspersed with unmined rock columns about 30 feet in diameter. The space can really be used for anything. In Cabot and East Brady, Pennsylvania, two former mines will store your boat or motor home during the long winter. Others house data servers for technology companies. In Louisville, Kentucky, there’s a giant underground mountain bike park.

But connect the unmined columns with some basic walls and you’ve got a space like anything you’d find on the surface, with some added benefits. The facilities are naturally cooled, and the temperature remains constant, which translates into savings on energy bills. Mines generally have only a few entrances, making security a fairly easy task, and they typically have easy access to highways and rail lines. Lease rates are often cheaper than above-ground locations. All of that is appealing to some food companies, which use the spaces to store, distribute and in some cases even manufacture their products.

While former limestone mines have found new life in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana and Kansas, the unofficial capital of the industry is Missouri, thanks to its mining heritage and unique geology. Most of the state’s limestone deposits are covered with a layer of shale, which prevents runoff water from entering old mines.

The largest facility is Hunt Midwest’s SubTropolis, which opened in Kansas City in 1964 and leases more than 6 million square feet of underground industrial space, nearly a third larger than Boeing’s Everett Factory in Washington State, the largest traditional warehouse in the world. Specialty food distributor Paris Brothers fills about 900,000 square feet with a large variety of products, although Director of Marketing Scott Presnell estimates about a ninth of the space is “devoted to raw, green specialty coffee beans.”

“From a food product standpoint, the ability that we have in the facility to control the climate conditions — humidity, light, temperature — is actually the reason we have a coffee warehouse,” Presnell says.

A couple of years ago, Paris Brothers moved from storing and distributing cheese in SubTropolis to aging it as well. The company believes moving the months-long process underground harkens back to how things were done for centuries, and gives the cheeses a unique flavor. But it’s not all upscale. Paris Brothers also stores commodity foods for the U.S. Department of Agriculture that can be distributed in the wake of a natural disaster.

Located three hours southeast of SubTropolis, Springfield Underground added its first refrigerated space in 1962 for the company that is now Kraft Heinz. More than five decades later, Kraft, which has a plant nearby, is still a tenant. The company has estimated it uses 65 percent less electricity to get to keep its products at the desired 36 degrees than it would in a normal warehouse.

Sixty miles west of Springfield in the city of Carthage, global warehousing and logistics firm Americold stores products ranging “from bulk-loaded ingredients to finished frozen meals and everything in between” in an underground facility that serves as one of the company’s five United States consolidation hubs, according to director of marketing Daniel Cooke. Deliveries are made to 19 states.

Underground space isn’t always just about storage. Cargill had a meat slicing and packing facility in Springfield Underground until a corporate restructuring in early 2015. Metabolic Meals, which delivers healthy entrees directly to customer doors, does all its food production in Bussen Underground Warehouse in St. Louis.

Also in Bussen is frozen seafood importer Arctic Food Services, which grew out of two above-ground warehouses before moving there, president David Gao says. Like others, he notes energy savings as a primary motivator; the company’s freezers are cooled to zero degrees. But after moving in, Gao also found an unexpected advantage. His company, he notes, has a number of young workers.

“Once we’re underground, there’s no cell phone service, so it contributes a lot to productivity.”