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Why 3 appliance, food companies made big commitments to Solano County

Economic-development boosters for Solano County are touting their role in helping three businesses secure sizable footprints in Solano County.

Solano Economic Development Corporation said the arrival of GE Appliances, Gotham Greens and Thistle in the past two years has the collective potential to create 300 to 350 jobs and provide an estimated $120 million in new investment.

Robert Burris, president and CEO of the business development group, said five other companies are having confidential discussions about doing the same.

“In addition to interest from a number of food-related companies, we are investing more time working with life science enterprises looking at Solano County, with Vacaville having a unique competitive advantage,” Burris said during Solano EDC’s virtual annual meeting March 25. “As a result, we are ramping up efforts to attract new firms for the nonprofit California Biotechnology Center developed by city of Vacaville. The overall economic impact of new biotech developments in this region is estimated to be 10,000 to 20,000 new jobs and several billion dollars in output.”

Burris noted that 1,000 acres of land zoned for industrial agriculture use are close to the UC Davis, which opens up opportunities for firms doing research in agriculture and food.

By locating in Solano, unique food producers can reduce time spent transporting perishable vegetables from farms to consumers by shortening the supply chain — especially in the wake of food supply disruptions and fragmentation caused by COVID-19. Consequently, Solano is fast becoming a food innovation hub as well as a regional distribution center for kitchen and home appliances, said Burris.

The Business Journal recently reported on Gotham Greens’ timetable for opening its 100,000-square-foot indoor vegetable greenhouse later this year. It’s the New York-based company’s first West Coast facility, intended to supply grocery stores, restaurants and other food service businesses.

GE Appliances

Following similar moves by firms wishing to be closer to Bay Area customers, GE Appliances, a Haier company, chose Dixon over Sacramento due to the availability of labor and adequate real estate, according to Burris. About 501,000 square feet of build-to-suit space has been leased at 250 E. Dorset Drive in Dixon for GE Appliances’ Solano County distribution center.

Construction began in January 2021 and completion is targeted for the first quarter of 2022. This center will serve Northern California and parts of Oregon and Nevada, according to Julie Wood, senior director of corporate communications.

“This will be our newest appliance distribution center,” Wood said. “It integrates smart technologies designed to improve product lifecycle, making it possible to deliver products to 90% of the U.S. population in one day from our nine manufacturing plants, 11 ADCs and 170 local delivery locations staffed by 13,600 employees.”

Over the last two years, GE Appliances, with headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, has increased its workforce by more than 2,000 employees in the U.S. and invested more than $740 million. The Solano plant is the company’s first appliance distribution center on the West Coast and one expected to provide between 50 and 100 jobs.

Wood said the company uses a digital thread and a sophisticated data base that tracks where each appliance is going, the customer who ordered it, when it is scheduled to arrive and what happens to it on its way to the customer.

Inspired by advances in the auto industry, the company’s warehouse product movers have Basiloid Lift-A-Pliance attachments equipped with sensors, variable-speed controls, navigation lights and cameras to enable operators to move products efficiently and reduce damage. Each appliance is moved only once, and symmetrical warehousing techniques reduce product handling by 50%. Interactive virtual reality instruction cuts training time in half by providing a computer generated, total immersion experience that closely resembles each job.

Thistle Health Inc.

Thistle has been preparing organic, gluten and dairy-free plant-based meals since 2014, along with cold-pressed juices, desserts and wellness shots for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Based in San Francisco’s Mission District, Thistle was established by co-founders Ashwin Cheriyan and his wife Shiri Avnery.

After a few years, the founders realized that growth depended on having enough affordable real estate to scale, while retaining a percentage of its San Francisco and East Bay workforce, leading to the decision to move to Vacaville enabling it to retain connectivity with surrounding markets, Burris said.

The company has more than 600 employees, with nearly 200 workers in Vacaville at its new 79,000 square foot site at 771 Eubanks Drive in the Interchange Business Park. Thistle has prepared over 5 million meal kits during the past seven-plus years, with a customer base that has grown by 50% since 2019. The bulk of Thistle’s operations —creating menus, buying fresh products, prepping ingredients, packaging and distribution — are occurring in Vacaville since the third quarter of last year.

Privately held Thistle acquired $10.3 million in series B capital on Jan. 6 to fund expansion. PowerPlant Ventures led the investment, with participation from Siddhi Capital, Alumni Ventures Group and Rich Products Ventures. The new investment came a year after Thistle finalized a $5.7 million series A round, also led by PowerPlant. Thistle has received a total of $24.3 million in funding since 2013.

The plant-based-foods category grew by 11% in 2019 within a $1.4 trillion global market for healthy meals, and Thistle is part of the $200 billion wellness products submarket, according to Crunchbase News.

The company creates new menus each week and delivers meals in refrigerated shipping boxes directly to customers who subscribe to this service. Meals are delivered by employees to home or work locations in California and other areas while others are shipped to recipients in parts of Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Customers receive text messages tracking delivery progress so they can know in advance when drivers will arrive at curbside.

Interplay between local workforce and economic-development agencies

“We also see our role as providing ongoing support to smaller businesses by helping to educate owners about financial programs available from the state and federal government to keep them going during shutdowns caused by the virus and the resulting economic crisis,” Burris said about the Solano EDC.

To achieve this, the group is collaborating with the Workforce Development Board of Solano County, the Small Business Development Center, the county and cities in Solano and agriculture-based organizations to compile and distribute financial aid information. One of the tools deployed was an animated presentation featuring advice and a variety of assistance resources available.

He said reasons often cited by firms considering Solano County include the availability of real estate to create large scale facilities, the ability to establish a hub distribution system with proximity to major markets, and access to Interstate highways as well as rail heads and ports.

The Solano County workforce numbers approximately 133,000 and also draws workers from large population centers 30 to 70 miles away in Sacramento and the Bay Area.

“For most firms planning to expand, decisions are often based on balancing the need for warehouse and distribution logistics space with requirements associated with advanced manufacturing, food and beverage and the life sciences industries,” Burris said.

The EDC provides direct service to scale local trades and sector industries, to attract new jobs and investment, and to connect businesses with resources to meet their needs, he said. The EDC teams with the cities, county, workforce development, utilities, and education to deliver all resources within Solano County.

Founded in 1997, the Solano EDC works with companies seeking to identify sites or buildings in the county, coordinates site tours and provides proposals and data to these companies upon request for location-decision evaluation. Once a company has identified specific sites that meet their needs, a city or county economic development representative provides primary assistance, and the EDC continues to provide data on workforce potential or access to programs offering relocation assistance.

EDC funding comes from three primary sources: companies and private organizations, cities and county governments, and contracts for business services rendered to public and private entities. Of its income, 2% to 3% comes from fund-raising.

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