University of Illinois Meat Sales Room Thrives Through Pandemic


By Lauren Quinn, FarmJournal's Pork

Nov 17, 2020


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 sleek 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, and reflects real-time inventory. 


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...