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Published April 13, 2024

Episode 140: The Little Room That Could: UMN’s Meat and Dairy Salesroom

The Meat and Dairy Salesroom, open every Wednesday from 2 to 5 p.m., is a market where anyone can buy meat and dairy items created and sold by students.

KAYLIE SIROVY: Hi everybody, this is Kaylie Sirovy from the Minnesota Daily and you’re listening to In The Know, a podcast dedicated to the University of Minnesota.

On the quiet St. Paul campus, down a nondescript hallway in the Andrew Boss Laboratory of Meat Science is the Meat and Dairy Salesroom. A unique destination where students showcase their skills by offering a diverse selection of meat and dairy products that anyone can come and purchase. From delectable cheeses to savory bacon, creamy ice cream to juicy hamburger patties, and mouthwatering pulled pork to premium steak cuts; this place is just like your local, educational butcher shop.

Everything in there comes from either the Meat Science Laboratory or the Joseph J. Warthesen Food Processing Center, also known as the Pilot Plant. According to Ray Miller, the coordinator of the pilot plant, it serves as both a teaching and research facility, bridging the gap between laboratory experimentation and large-scale production.

RAY MILLER: So, you wanna see if something that’s been working in the lab will actually scale up to at least a minimum amount, a pilot scale, and then if that all runs well, then you would take it to production where you’re making thousands of pounds, millions of pounds of whatever it is, a day or a year.

SIROVY: Besides being a teaching facility, they also bring in clients from around the country who want to run their experimental trials and carry out their research, develop new products or new ingredients, or take waste products and create something out of them. 

The salesroom has been evolving ever since its creation in the fifties and sixties Miller said. Back then they were just doing research on dairy products, so cheese, ice cream and butter. With any experiment, there are control batches, he said. So, after these experiments were done, researchers would have these batches, have nowhere to go with them, and end up throwing them out because they got too old.

MILLER: And so they were like, well, what can we do to at least recover some of our costs for ingredients and such for these products that we’re making in these experiments? And so, that’s when they decided they would start running a salesroom, but make it low key, non competitive with other major food companies in the area who might fund research or do research here. And so that’s kind of how the salesroom started.

SIROVY: It started out slow, but over time, local residents came to recognize that one day a week, they could access quality products in the area. It stayed that way until the late seventies, early eighties Miller said.

MILLER: That’s kind of when I came in and we started making, up to that point, they were making like three flavors of ice cream and maybe 2 or 3 different type cheeses. And so we started expanding that to where, you know, we would start offering more ice cream flavors and got up to like 25 to 30 different flavors that we were making. They wouldn’t all be in there at one time, but they would, you know, there would be at least a minimum of 7 or 8 flavors. And so once we did that people started, you know, we started to get more business in as we had more variety.

SIROVY: Miller recalls that around 2015, the dairy department started talking with the meat department, which at that point had been selling bulk meat from the basement of the Andrew Boss Meat Science building.

MILLER: And they said, well, what do you think if we combined and made the store available for folks to get both meat and cheese and ice cream? And so, that’s when we ended up, you know, going into a business with the meats folks as well. And it’s been very successful, and really helped both sides. 

SIROVY: During my interview with Miller, I had the opportunity to go into the pilot plant. With Miller as my guide, I donned a hairnet and saw firsthand the production processes behind the cheese and ice cream sold in the salesroom. While no production was underway at the time, it was incredible to see nonetheless. Walking through a room filled with giant stainless steel machines and learning how it all works. I was also directed to a wall featuring an observation deck, accessible to students curious about the process. Seeing all the work it takes to make ice cream and cheese, I certainly had a newfound appreciation of dairy production after my tour. 

MILLER: This is cheese making down here. So we’ve got these various vats that we put the milk in. We get the milk in a large tank, refrigerated tank like that. So we can hold it. If we need to hold it overnight or whatever to make the next day and then put it through a pasteurizer plate, plate heat exchanger here.

Down on this end is kind of our ice cream processing. So this is where we mix it all up in a tank like this. So you take your cream, your milk, your sugar, your nonfat milk solids, and maybe a stabilizer for binding the water better. Heat it in there, then run it through a homogenizer. That simply breaks the fat down to smaller globules, so that they don’t separate out and when you eat your ice cream you don’t get a greasy mouth feel in your mouth. 

SIROVY: That would not be too pleasant. 

MILLER: No, so a very important piece. And then we’ll put it through again another plate heat exchanger that’ll cool that mix down from 155 Fahrenheit to like 40 degrees in a matter of seconds in that plate.

Ice cream is usually a two day process, so we’ll make the mix one day. Then we age it overnight in a cooler or a jacketed cooled tank. And then the next day is when we’d freeze and that’s what this is. This is the actual ice cream freezer. So it’s a vertical barrel in here. This is the barrel, the diameter of that and inside that barrel then is a auger that sweeps the surface, so the ice cream freezes on the sides of the barrel. It’s cooled down by Freon. And then, um, then that blade comes around and keeps scraping that surface off where the ice cream is frozen. Finally, it comes out here at about 22 degrees Fahrenheit, so it looks like soft serve at Dairy Queen.

SIROVY: As for the meat production side of the business, Jordan McCallum has been the meat lab supervisor for the past 3 years.

JORDAN MCCALLUM: Yeah, it’s really fun because I get to work with the students, um, teach them about meat cutting, processing. I also get to work with the general public. So we do demos like at the State Fair, um, for various 4-H groups, um, grocery store meat cutters. We get to do a lot of work with a lot of different groups of people, so it’s really interesting. Every day is different, which I really love.

I did a couple 4-H groups, um, last year and kind of talked about meat processing. And they were divided by age group, so I kind of catered differently to the different age groups, but one of the groups was like elementary age kids. So, we made cheddar hot dogs, which was really fun, and they had a blast, and it was really fun.

SIROVY: McCallum says that the meat they acquire is designated for either educational or research purposes. Animals used for research come from various campuses within the university system, not solely the St. Paul campus, but also from research stations scattered throughout the state. For instance, the organic pigs are sourced from Morris.

MCCALLUM: We’ve been doing a lot of work with them. The way they’re raised, there’s different standards for organic pigs versus conventionally raised pigs, so a lot of the studies we do are based on nutrition. So, they’re looking at different feeds, and how they’re feeding animals, and how that impacts the meat quality. So that’s been interesting.

SIROVY: Some of the classes that students studying meat science take look a little different than the classes most of us are probably familiar with.

MCCALLUM: So we have a livestock and carcass evaluation class. So they look at the animals live, and then the animals come to the meat lab, and then the students come back and they get to look at the carcasses. So, when the animals are live, they’re trying to evaluate what that animal’s going to look like.

So, how big that ribeye is going to be, what the fat’s going to look like, um. What that carcass is basically going to yield so, they try to guess that while the animals live, then they come back after harvest, look at the carcass, do actual measurements for educational purposes. And then all those carcasses that we bring in, whether it’s for classes or research, all that product is what ends up in our sales room.

SIROVY: In addition to dairy and meat products, the salesroom offers a few other items. These include honey, seasoning salts from a Minneapolis-based company, and during the fall season, apples which were grown and developed at the University of Minnesota McCallum said.

MCCALLUM: So we have honey from the bees on campus. We have maple syrup that is produced at the Arboretum.We have apples in the fall that are grown for apple research at the Arboretum. So, we get different apples throughout the season, so apples get ripe at different times. So, we had Honeycrisp. We had First Kiss. We had Sweet Tango. 

SIROVY: While the exact count of customers isn’t meticulously tracked, Miller estimates an average turnout ranging from 100 to 150 people. This figure varies, with some days witnessing a line out the door, while on others, only a few handful of customers. Regardless of attendance, the generated revenue goes directly to financing the meat lab, ensuring its continued operation.

MCCALLUM: It’s to pay our students, and also just maintain equipment and be able to purchase ingredients and things like that, that we have to add to the meat or purchasing the animals that we have to bring in for meat processing.

MILLER: We hire usually somewhere two to four students per semester, uh, to work in the pilot plant. They help us with cleaning, set up, analysis. Yeah, and production of the different things that we make in there. And so those students, of those students, usually there’s one or two that are kind of just mainly focused on the sales room. So, their job is to get all the cheeses cut up and the ice cream stocked in the store each week, keep track of the, you know the cases, the cheese case and the ice cream case in there and make sure they’re looking good and are labeled properly and such.

SIROVY: Just like with any small business, there are ups and there are downs. Both McCallum and Miller agreed that the biggest issue they face is the salesroom being so small. It’s not a giant grocery store, it’s a small room with refrigerator cases and freezers. Some have considered expanding it, be it the room size or hours open, but at the moment, that’s not possible.

MILLER: That’s been brought up over and over again in the past, like 15 years or so. Some that would really like to do that and others who are kind of hesitant. What it would take is, to really expand, to make it worth expanding is kind of a little bit of a change in philosophy because in order to produce enough products, if you’re going to expand. For example, now we sell some of the ice cream up to the student center here.

But we’d never be able to supply Minneapolis campus stores as well. And we do supply Campus Club over there with cheeses. They buy a lot of cheese from us, but if there were more catering services or places like that that want it, we’d have a hard time, again, supplying them. So to do that, you kind of have to get into more of a production type mode and that means something else is going to be removed, be it your educational, your ability to train students in the educational part of it, or the research part of it would suffer.

SIROVY: In theory, expanding it is a great idea. Miller also emphasizes its feasibility, citing established precedents at other universities such as Wisconsin, South Dakota, Cornell and Penn State. These institutions boast larger facilities and a more extensive array of products compared to the current offerings at the U salesroom. 

MILLER: And part of the reason it never did expand right away was again, as I said, the department heads when I first got here were very much against that, in that they didn’t want us to compete with Land O’Lakes or General Mills or other companies that are in the area that sell, you know, cheese and ice cream and stuff. Which to me I never really saw that because like we’re selling this amount.

These guys are going to be scared that we’re somehow taking business. It’s just, it never made real sense to me, but they were my supervisor. So I couldn’t really say much. So, but now it’s much more, you know, we’re looking for visibility. We want people to know we’re here and that we’re doing this and that we’re producing really great products as well as doing good research.

SIROVY: According to their website, that product selection comprises approximately 17 cheeses, 37 ice cream flavors, and an assortment of meat products, spanning from whole carcasses to marinated chicken wings, blueberry summer sausage, and my personal favorite, the maple-flavored snack sticks. I’ve been there approximately 2 times, but each time I went, there were both students and the general public alike.

MCCALLUM: Every week is so different. So it’s hard to say exactly like a really memorable day. I think it’s really like heartwarming. I think it’s just really cool that the university allows us to kind of take an educational piece and then turn it into something for our customers. Along with the pilot plan, it’s just, it’s really neat that the students get to experience food processing right on campus. 

Especially on the meat side of things in animal agriculture. This is kind of like the center point of animal agriculture. So, it’s really cool that the students get to experience and learn how to process meat. And be involved in the educational side of it, but then also be involved in the processing and the retail side of things as well. It’s kind of full circle. 

SIROVY: The Salesroom is open to the public on Wednesdays from 2:00-5:00 p.m. in Room 166 of the Andrew Boss Lab of Meat Science on the St. Paul Campus. 

This episode was written and produced by Kaylie Sirovy. As always, we appreciate you listening in and feel free to leave us an email at [email protected] with comments, questions or concerns. I’m Kaylie, and this is In The Know.

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  • Wendy Eilers
    Feb 21, 2024 at 6:59 pm

    Such an informative podcast. I would love to visit and buy some meat and dairy items. How can there be 37 flavors of ice cream?