Sun Basket shines in Valmeyer bluffs

Pictured, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner (center) gets ready to cut the ribbon Thursday at Rock City with Sun Basket executives as representatives of the village of Valmeyer, other public officials, and Sun Basket employees look on. (Sean McGowan photo)

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s message reverberated through the underground Rock City development in Valmeyer during Thursday’s grand opening of one of the largest employers in Monroe County.

“You guys are what the American economy is all about,” he relayed to the 380 full-time employees of Sun Basket, the newest company to move into Rock City. “Hard work, innovation, creativity, technology and delivering value for customers.”

Sun Basket, a national meal kit delivery service, has been in Admiral Parkway’s large cave business development on a trial basis since last March. The company celebrated its grand opening Thursday with a tour of the inside of the facility and a ribbon-cutting.

During the tour, Rauner shadowed Sun Basket CEO and co-founder Adam Zbar and COO Don Barnett.

The tour covered much of Sun Basket’s 110,000-square-foot facility, including a food preparation area, employee cafeteria, office space and storage area. Rauner was also introduced to Sun Basket executive chef and co-founder Justine Kelley.

Kelley put together a modest spread of various items, which Rauner and others on the tour sampled. Then came a brief rally to pump everyone up for the ribbon-cutting.

“Go Sun Basket! Go Sun Basket!” Rauner chanted to the crowd. “On the great success, congratulations. We’re all for you. We’re all for you.”

During the rally, Zbar heaped praises onto the Valmeyer staff.

“There would be no Sun Basket without the incredible work that each of you do each week providing surprise and delight for our customers,” he said to employees.

Valmeyer Mayor Howard Heavner used the rally as an opportunity to convey his support of Sun Basket moving into the village.

“We’re certainly happy that you’re here. We’re happy to provide the platform and the foundation for your buildings,” he indicated. 

Heavner also said developing Rock City required a lot of effort, recognizing Admiral Parkway Inc. owner Joe Koppeis.

“Without his creativity and his determination, dedication, these things would not happen. And I am grateful for him … We couldn’t do this, clearly, on our own,” he said. “We don’t.”

Koppeis expressed gratitude to the governor for making it down to celebrate and to the village of Valmeyer for its help. Additionally, he said retired State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld provided the initial push to get Rock City off the ground.

“Sun Basket, you’re an amazing company,” he added. “I’m really impressed with all of the employees and all of the management.”

Finishing out the rally, general manager of Midwest operations Chris Nelson gave some words of encouragement to employees. Nelson said the Valmeyer location pushed out a half-million boxes and fed three million people last year.

“I’m so proud to be part of this team. Realistically it’s all of you guys and gals in the audience that do the hard work,” he said.

The ribbon-cutting included Sun Basket executives, representatives of the village, other public officials, and Sun Basket employees. 

Zbar said in a press release the company can now support more than $1 billion in revenue.

“We were particularly excited in partnering with Rock City given its unique underground cave location adds to our focus on sustainability, which is a core part of our business model,” he included.

About the Midwest facility
Nelson agreed that Sun Basket wants to be a good steward of the environment.

In addition, he said opening in Rock City helped save on construction costs and cut the electric bill in half with the natural cooling effect of the rock.

Sun Basket can now reach 98 percent of the country with its newest venture. Out of Rock City, Nelson said Sun Basket delivers meal kits to customers in the Midwest region.

“We would never be able to get the middle of the country if it wasn’t for this,” he said. “We didn’t know at first what to expect but we’ve really seen a huge increase in orders.”

Nelson said 90 percent of the employees in Valmeyer are Illinois residents, with 75 people (20 percent) living in Monroe County. 

Monroe County Clerk Dennis Knobloch told the Republic-Times that other top employers in the county include the Waterloo School District (350), Walmart (350), and Columbia School District (228).

Sun Basket in Valmeyer is planning a phase two expansion to be completed within a year that would add up to 50,000 square feet. Additionally, the company’s overall growth will result in 100 new employees being hired in the course of a year.

Valmeyer is also in the process of preparing paperwork to submit to the state to do some bolting for the roof for parking at Sun Basket.

Nelson said being housed in Rock City has worked well for Sun Basket’s Midwest operations. When it first opened, 23 employees shipped a total of 87 boxes. That has since grown to 15,000 to 20,000 boxes a week.

“I love it. Part of it — we came down in this facility not knowing where things were going. But everyone has been super supportive,” he expressed.

Consequently, Nelson said the company has been giving back to the community. Part of that includes providing about five to 10 pallets of leftovers from weekly shipments to Hope Food Pantry in Columbia.

Nelson said Sun Basket also has a 180,000-square-foot distribution warehouse in southern New Jersey and a San Jose, Calif. facility that is 65,000 square feet, making the Valmeyer operation the second largest. Sun Basket is headquartered in San Francisco, Calif.

Rock City updates
Admiral Parkway director of operations Lorrie Maag said the National Archives and Records Administration, Cargill Meat Solutions, Branding Iron Holdings, and Blue Line Foodservice Distribution also occupy space in Rock City. 

Blue Line Foodservice is the distribution company for Little Ceasars. 

The NARA uses 475,000 square feet of space in a controlled climate environment to store more than 2.5 million boxes of federal records.

Currently, Admiral Parkway is in talks with other businesses about moving into Rock City, but Maag said she could not share any names due to the confidential nature of ongoing negotiations.

Rock City traces its history back to the early 1900s, when the railroad opened a quarry in the Valmeyer bluffs to provide rock as the railroad was built through the bottoms.

Around 1918, the area was reopened as Columbia Quarry Company. This company continued limestone quarry operations there until the early 1990s.

After that, the mined-out area was used for growing mushrooms.

Upon the village’s relocation to higher ground following the 1993 flood, Valmeyer took over ownership of the quarry property in 1995.

In 2000, the village entered into an agreement with Admiral Parkway to develop the abandoned quarry.

Koppeis said Rock City is earthquake proof, tornado proof and electromagnetic proof – and has natural ventilation.

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