The perks of working underground? No distractions, no weather, no sweat

Meritex Lenexa Executive Park is a 3,000,000-square-foot sub-surface business park in a former limestone mine.
Meritex Lenexa Executive Park is a 3,000,000-square-foot sub-surface business park in a former limestone mine. kmyers@kcstar.com

In the seven years since employees of Canteen Vending Services moved from an above-ground facility to the bowels of Lenexa’s Meritex Executive Park, they’ve gotten used to cave labor.

It did take some time, though.

The shadowy streets. The absence of sunlight. When drivers come in from filling vending machines, office staffers would ask (and still do), “Has the rain let up?”

From her desk, Ruth Marshall can’t hear lightning. Or outdoor police sirens. TVs in the office tell her when a tornado might be brewing.

For seven years, warehouse worker Larry Stanton’s flip phone has been useless at work. He goes with a different service provider than the one contracted to connect Canteen.

“Doesn’t bother me at all,” said Stanton. “I’m 60 years old, and I couldn’t care less about having a phone all the time.”

Job applicants, though, kind of freak when they approach this place at the end of a hay pasture.

“I tell them, ‘When you get to the entrance just drive in,’” said Jon Bachert, a customer service manager. “I say it’s a cave. ‘What?’ A cave.

“‘You saying cave?’ Yes, a cave.”

Workers at first may blanch at the white, rocky walls in the office corners, a constant reminder that this job is underground, in a former mine. But those limestone pillars keep 780,000 square feet of Canteen space stable, and over time the their look grows on staffers. If someone has a choice of desks, the more rock around it, the funkier.

Only once has an outsider come to a business meeting looking distressed. Two minutes into an uneasy chat, she said, “I’ve got to get out of here.” She fled and finished the meeting via her cellphone.

Frank Merrick, Canteen’s district general manager, has a neighbor who is an auto mechanic. On steamy days he comes home sweating and stinky.

But Merrick? “I smell the same as when I came to work,” he said, owing it to the temperature in the mine being 68 degrees.

“My neighbor’s jealous,” said Merrick. “Now today I’m jealous, because he’s out in sunny, 70 degree weather.”

Driver Jon Gladney spends half his time in the warehouse and half making outside deliveries. “I like the outside. Sunshine has its advantages.”

But Gladney will not miss cold shifts at the old Canteen site off Southwest Boulevard. His delivery truck sat outside overnight and the conventional warehouse was only partially heated. In below-freezing conditions, the cargo would be so cold that soft drink cans he’d load in the morning would ice up and bust before reaching vending machines.

A lack of windows in the workplace — well, Marshall’s office has an ersatz one with blinds that open up to shelving — brings to mind the psychology behind casino design.

Casinos are built without windows (or clocks, in some cases) so players are oblivious to the passing of time. They stay longer.

Not that Canteen wants to fool its team members. But as a practical matter, missing sunshine is another reason Meritex leasing manager Lonnie Cannon cites when discussing why employers should go underground.

No glimpse of daylight, he said, “adds to productivity.”

Rick Montgomery: 816-234-4410, @rmontgomery_r