University's meat salesroom a hidden jewel
By ANDY GREDER
St. Paul Pioneer Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- Signage consists of white sheets of paper taped to the interior walls of a brick building on the University of Minnesota's sleepy St. Paul campus.
The sheets say "meat lab salesroom" with arrows pointing down a hall and stairs to Room 26.
In the windowless, concrete basement, employees in white lab coats fill orders for a dozen customers. Ground beef, bacon, apple brats, brown-sugar-cured hams, jerky and other meats are bagged.
At the meat and dairy salesrooms in the Andrew Boss Lab of Meat Science, quality is high and prices are low, but quantities are limited, so you gotta get there when the gettin's good. And that would be from 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays, the only time the salesroom is open.
The meat lab salesroom -- and its parallel dairy salesroom on the first floor -- sells state-inspected products made by students in the animal science and food science schools.
This winter, gripping his plastic bags tightly, Mike Nielsen was protective of this hidden gem he frequents every chance he gets.
"To be honest, I don't really want anybody else to know about it," the St. Paul man said.
The woman behind the dairy cooler was friendly and recommended the Minnesota Goatster (a parmesan-style) cheese, a tomato-and-basil goat Gouda and cote d'or (a cheese named for a French region). All were flavorful and satisfying.
Ryan Cox, the meat lab faculty coordinator, said the bacon is second only to ground beef as a best-seller.
"(The bacon is) dry-cured, which is an older style of curing, where we don't use any moisture," Cox said. "We just take the ingredients and rub them on the outside and (let the meat rest) under refrigeration for a couple of weeks. We allow (the rub) to penetrate and then smoke off."
The lab makes 42 types of sausage, Cox said.
"We utilize the whole animal, so we have to market the whole animal," he said.
During another visit in March, the weather had warmed and a steady stream of customers walked out of the salesroom with heavy bags. The most common item was a large ham.
Paul Giese of St. Paul got a ham for Easter. He had bought -- and liked -- the ham before.
"I thought it was excellent," he said. "It has a very nice smoked flavor. ... The flavor is very intense."
The meat lab models itself after smaller mom-and-pop butcher shops. It skips the saltwater injections, Cox said.
"A lot of supermarket products have moisture enhancements to increase yields, and we don't do any of that," Cox said.
As Giese loaded his loot into his SUV, he also praised the leanness of the turkey jerky, the summer sausage -- and again -- the bacon. He also raved about the ice cream, including such flavors as maple nut, coconut and Bordeaux cherry.
"I'm an adventurous eater, and I would come here again," Giese said.
For his St. Patrick's Day parties, Nielsen buys lamb at the meat salesroom to use in Irish-inspired stew.
"(Lamb is) always so expensive, but here it's about half the price," Nielsen said.
For Tim Bergman, the meat lab is a tradition passed down from his parents. Visits started with the "great" cheese and "fantastic" ice cream, but now he focuses on meat.
Bergman purchased two pork bellies to make pancetta.
"It's a different meat to cure," Bergman said. "I can get cuts of meat that I can't get at Cub or Rainbow. I could probably find pork bellies somewhere else, but I don't know where. ... They have good quality, and they are great to work with."
It's also about the cause, he said.
"It's a great opportunity for (the university students) to learn the whole process," Bergman said. "And they will be able to do something with it when they are done."
In 1901, the University of Minnesota became the first U.S. university to have a meat lab.
"For years and years -- through the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s -- we were strong in meat science and research," Cox said. The salesroom was added in the 1990s, but with a very little variety. "It was a favor service, really," Cox said.
In the early 2000s, the meat lab faded as faculty retired or passed away.
But in about 2006, the Department of Animal Science recommitted to the meat lab and salesroom and hired Pete Nelson, whose 37-year career in meat processing in Lindstrom, Minn., helped the lab add such products as sausage, snack sticks, bacon and ham.
"It's a very broad offering, and it's nothing like it used to be," said Cox, giving the example of how the salesroom has gone from zero to six styles of bacon.
In the mid-2000s, the meat salesroom brought in a paltry $200 to $300 each Wednesday. Now, it makes $2,000 to $3,000, depending on holidays, Cox said.
At the end of April, the meat salesroom is scheduled to merge into the dairy salesroom on the first floor. The combined space will be remodeled, new equipment will be added, and credit card payments will be accepted. But the volume and variety of products and store hours are not expected to change.
"We don't try to compete or beat anyone's prices," Cox said. "We are not a tax-paying business, so it wouldn't be terribly fair for us to undercut our neighbors. And that said, we also can't really advertise in the popular media. We work on word-of-mouth, work on our Facebook page. We have an email list that people can get added to, but that is pretty much it."
The meat salesroom looks to recoup costs of teaching, research and extension, and it strives to break even every year, Cox said.
Agriculture schools across the U.S. are working to build a brand through their food products. In March, the New York Times highlighted efforts at Washington State, Cornell, Idaho and Texas A&M. At the University of Minnesota, the bacon is sold under the name "Gopher Gold Smoked Bacon," and brats can be enjoyed at Gopher football games at TCF Bank Stadium.
"There is a sense of pride in buying from the U," Cox said. "There is a perception of local, which is true. This animal is local to right here on campus," or in Rosemount or Morris, Minn.
Sophomore Tamara Gallegos of Vista, Calif., has had experience finishing cattle at the feedlot in Rosemount, and now she knows how to butcher the meat. She also has seen the limitations of the salesroom, with yearly butcher averages of about 30 cattle, 150 pigs, fewer than 10 lambs as well as hundreds of turkeys and chickens.
"We don't always get enough meat to produce what people want," the animal science student said.