Finding the Silver Lining
A Shift to Online Sales by the University of Illinois Meat Sales Room
By Joe Metz
In early March of 2020, what now feels like another lifetime ago, the University of Illinois Meat Science Laboratory was racing through a typical, fast-paced, spring semester. Graduate students were slaughtering and fabricating over 50 pigs over the course of a week to collect data for industry supported projects. These pork carcasses would then be used, by the meat judging team, for practice in preparation for their trip to compete at the Southeastern contest in Columbus, Ohio. After that, the pork would be available for sale by the University of Illinois Meat Sales Room to the Champaign-Urbana community. By mid-March, our coolers were filled to the brim as research, teaching, and sales were all going strong.
For over 40 years, the Meat Sales Room located in the Meat Science Laboratory has operated as the capstone to an integrated university research farm system. Animals raised on the farms are processed in the Meat Science Laboratory for research, teaching, and outreach. Their meat is then sold to the public, which also helps to support the mission of the university.
Pork has long been the primary protein studied by researchers at the Meat Science Laboratory. Consequently, the Meat Sales Room has built its business largely around fresh and further processed pork. Customers especially enjoy the fresh and fully cooked sausages made with unique seasoning blends created by the now retired manager and salumist Charles Stites. Bacon made with different muscles, spices, and curing methods, formulated by current manager Benjamin Peterson, are beloved products as well.
The local community has also been a driving force in the success of the Meat Sales Room maximizing profits on each carcass. The diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds of the university community is instrumental in being able to maintain profitability for an old school, retail meat shop. There are few shops that can justify offering beef, lamb, and pork offal, bones, skin, fat, or even lesser-known cuts in a retail case setting. Customer loyalty is one of the main reasons the butcher shop has been successful throughout the years, and it was a primary driver into finding a solution to safely stay open through uncertain times.
As shutdowns and closures loomed, retail sales exploded as a frantic nation looked to gain some sense of security by stocking their freezers. Within our community, grocery stores struggled to keep meat in stock. We experienced the same surge in sales and streamlined our products toward the most simplistic processing such as ground pork and Boston butt roasts to help people stock up. Then the stay-at-home orders were put in place causing the future of the University of Illinois Meat Sales Room and its ability to support the university and local community seemingly in jeopardy.
As the university shifted into an online learning format, students were encouraged to finish the semester from home. This created a challenge as the Meat Sales Room workforce is made up largely of undergraduate student workers who are able to gain invaluable retail food production experience. At the same time, we needed to empty our coolers and get the meat into freezers before spoilage as in-person retail sales was not an option. In response, the entire Meat Science Laboratory including faculty, staff, and graduate students, stepped in to help fabricate and process the carcasses on hand. But without our ability to sell to the public, we only shifted the problem from the coolers to the freezer.
It became clear that traditional in-person sales were no longer efficient or safely feasible in the small retail lobby under state guidelines, and a shift to an online sales format became the alternative. With the hopes of a short hiatus from a return to normalcy, University of Illinois Animal Science Associate Professors Dr. Ryan Dilger and Dr. Anna Dilger created a simple website capable of processing orders for curbside pickup.
Meat bundle boxes including a variety of cuts helped to simplify processing, move different products, and provide customers with meat throughout the summer. The response from the community was overwhelming. We would often reach our quota of weekly sales within minutes of the website going live. Customers would place orders on Sunday and Monday for pick up on Thursday and Friday. Seeing our customers coming through the pickup line was rewarding as their gratitude and encouragement helped us to press on.
Being able to continue our operations through the summer also allowed for the slaughter and processing of pigs from university farms. This meant that at least those animals were not competing for spots at processing plants during the height of the shortage of slaughter capacity.
Like most people, we did not expect to still be conducting online sales and curbside pickup in August. But seeing that the end of the pandemic was nowhere in sight, we worked with marketing and web designers from Surface-51 in Champaign to build an e-commerce solution at meatandeggsales.illinois.edu. The website allows customers to place orders on in-stock items for specific pickup windows throughout the week. The Meat Sales Room is able to manage inventory and operate a curbside pickup operation. This format of pre-orders and curbside pickup has been so popular that customers are requesting we continue the practice even after the pandemic.
Throughout the uncertainty and the challenges brought about by the pandemic over the past year, the desire to help feed a portion of the local community has been at the forefront of each decision to press on. Their loyalty has allowed the Meat Sales Room to successfully operate as a small retail butcher shop when many similar businesses throughout the country have had to close over the years. The pandemic has required alterations to nearly every part of the business, but the result has been a modernized and diversified approach to retail sales. While not always easy, good has come out of challenging times. This has the University of Illinois Meat Sales Room confident and excited about whatever the future may hold.
Joe Metz is the assistant manager at the University of Illinois Meat Sales Room and a graduate research assistant working on his master's degree in Meat Science. Joe is originally from Gridley, IL and earned his bachelor's degree in Animal Sciences from the University of Illinois in 2020.