Back in March, the University of Illinois meat science research group was wrapping up a big project and the meats judging team was preparing to host a regional contest. Then, in the blink of an eye, COVID-19 hit, sending everyone home.
"Our coolers were absolutely full," says Anna Dilger, meat scientist and associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences.
Typically, the USDA-inspected meat from research projects and judging contests are sold out of a small out-of-the-way building on the south end of campus. But with the shutdown, the sales room was shuttered.
As more university animals reached market size and needed processing in the following weeks, the freezers filled up too. By early April, the team knew they had to find a way to safely deliver product to their eager customer base. So they pulled together a simple online order form and started a curbside pickup system. The problem?
"We had no inventory control. We just had to hope people didn't all order the same thing. And there were over 1,900 unique customers buying through the form," says Ryan Dilger, associate professor in the department (and Anna's spouse). "We'd open it up every Sunday at 11 a.m., and sometimes we couldn't turn it off fast enough because we'd reach 200 orders within five minutes. People were getting upset because they were missing out."
But as of last week, the Meat and Egg Salesroom has a new website with a sophisticated e-commerce system. Built by Surface 51, the new site allows customers to place orders 'round the clock, choose a time for contactless pickup that suits their schedule, reflects real-time inventory — and just in time to pre-order Thanksgiving hams.
"We've been making a push for a couple of years to take our meat and egg sales online, and the pandemic certainly offered the opportunity," Ryan says.
For loyal customer Michael Condos, the new website and ordering system are a welcome change. But hiccups with the earlier iteration didn't dampen his enthusiasm for the shop.
"COVID didn't really affect our ordering that much. In fact, I think we ordered more than usual this summer," he says. "The manager and staff pivoted very well during the pandemic. Whenever I go to pick up items, the staff are very enthusiastic and friendly, and it's nice to see the manager working outside with them. We love supporting the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) and the meat sales room."
Condos isn't alone.
"We have an incredibly enthusiastic following. It's this little community, both university people and people from the area who are just really loyal to our business. It's been really lovely to see them stick with us through these really strange times and interact with us as we go into this completely online environment. We're really excited that we can still show up for them," Anna says.
The sales room also showed up for local livestock producers during the earliest days of the pandemic.
Soon after the March shutdown, regional slaughter facilities were shutting down due to COVID outbreaks and the supply chain threatened to break down. Pigs from the university's swine research center, which are often booked into nearby slaughter facilities, couldn't get in.
There was only one outlet available to take up the slack.
"The fact that we were able to continue our operations at the Meat and Egg Salesroom allowed us to process animals already on research studies, pigs in particular. We felt really good about that, not only because it supported the research, but it also kept our pigs out of the general population," Anna says. "It wasn't just us; there were lots of producers around the state having trouble finding a spot. So, if we could at least keep our animals out of the marketplace, that provided some relief for everyone else."
It also gave Lexi Chen and fellow student employees the hands-on experience people have come to expect from a College of ACES education. Student workers do pretty much everything in the Meat and Egg Salesroom.
"As an undergrad, there are several things you can choose to work with," Chen says. "You can work on the kill floor, where you can watch the whole process of slaughtering animals, including lamb, pork and beef. You can also work in the cutting room to break down whole carcasses into retail cuts. Then you can work in the processing room to make bacon, sausages, barbecue sauce, all kinds of things. Then, of course, you can work in sales, interacting with the consumers. You can have a lot of fun, basically."
Chen, now a master's student studying meat science with Anna, worked the sales floor to earn a bit of extra money when she started as a freshman in animal sciences. Within a few months, she was trying all the roles in the meat and egg sales room, joining the meats judging team led by Brandon Klehm, and enrolling in meat science courses. By her junior year, Chen had moved upstairs, where Anna and fellow meat scientist Bailey Harsh conduct their research, to get her start on a research career.
The unassuming brick building at 1503 S. Maryland Dr. in Urbana is much more than meets the eye. It embodies a spirit of resilience and service during a global pandemic, a haven for a loyal and supportive community, and endless opportunity for future leaders in meat science — and now has a new website, too.