The retail division of the Department of Animal & Food Sciences continues to fill and deliver meat orders online despite the COVID-19 outbreak.
In mid-March, buildings on the Texas Tech University campus shuttered their doors, and faculty, staff and students were sent home to complete the semester online as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped the entire world.
But as campus administrators and state and local officials began to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, one part of campus has been able to maintain some sense of hands-on learning. That's because the service it provides has been deemed essential for the population to survive.
Raider Red Meats, the retail aspect of the Department of Animal & Food Sciences in the Texas Tech College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, continues to supply consumers with quality meat products, from ground beef to pork and lamb. Their ability to ship meat has allowed a handful of students to stay on campus to help process meat and fill orders.
"We use students for most of our operations, and without them, we would not be able to operate very efficiently," said Raider Red Meats Director Tate Corliss. "We are open for experiential learning outcomes for our students. Our store has been closed on campus, but we have continued to serve businesses in Lubbock and meet online orders, shipping orders daily through Federal Express."
Raider Red Meats has always served as not only a retail business, but a way for students to gain real-world experience in preparing, packaging and selling meat. Though the restaurant/store is closed due to the pandemic, the work continues.
Prior to the closing of non-essential businesses, the transition for students and faculty to online classes and the governmental orders to stay home when at all possible, Raider Red Meats experienced a tremendous surge.
As reports of grocery hoarding began to surface and retail grocers across the U.S. began to experience shortages of products, Raider Red Meats saw a sudden surge in business as people sought alternative stores for their beef, pork and poultry needs. Corliss said Raider Red Meats was experiencing record sales until the on-campus store was forced to close.
"When shutdowns began to arise and food demand skyrocketed, we honestly didn't have enough employees to meet demand," said Koby Valentine, a senior animal sciences major from Clovis, New Mexico. "The week of spring break I was working all day just to keep up with daily sales, and it was like nothing I had witnessed in eight semesters of working there."
The increased demand also caught Raider Red Meats, like others, by surprise just a bit in what exactly the public was looking for. For example, Valentine said that during the week of spring break, Raider Red Meats ran out of ground beef, which he said never happens. He said he processed more than 500 pounds of ground beef in one morning, and that allotment sold out in about two hours later that day.
Raider Red Meats tried its best to keep up with demand, but the initial surge overwhelmed them at first, just like it did everyone else.
"During the first few weeks before our store was closed, my co-workers and I physically couldn't keep the shelves stocked fast enough," said Shae Suttle, a sophomore animal sciences major from Idalou. "People came in panic-buying and hoarding hot items, including ground beef and chuck roasts."
Suttle added, though, that since people have settled into a stay-at-home routine, Raider Red Meats has been able to get into a groove as well and is able to keep up with the demand for products online and also service its partners, including United Supermarkets, The Bent Nail, Honey Glazed Ham and the Outdoor Chef, to make a few.
Interestingly there has been a change in purchasing habits. According to Corliss, as a Go Texan member that supports agriculture, Raider Red Meats gets its products from local and regional sources. Some of its supply also comes from the college's industry partners, such as Cargill and Tyson as well as from animals harvested locally.
While the quality of meat remains the same, what the public is looking to buy has changed dramatically. Corliss said demand for ground beef, stew meat and beef roasts has increased and Raider Red Meats has shifted production to those kinds of cuts in order to meet demand.
"People are more interested in easy and flexible options, including ground beef, as opposed to our high-quality steaks," Suttle said. "Typically, grilling season begins as the weather starts to warm up, and usually around this time of year we see a spike in steak sales, including ribeyes, New York strip steaks and tenderloins. However, this pandemic has led to an adjustment in the choice of meat, resulting in a higher demand for lower-quality items."
Corliss also added that although Raider Red Meats can stay open in its current format as long as is needed with their current processing conditions, they are ready to serve their customers again, even if it is curbside while the university's buildings remain closed.
In addition to being a job for the students, working at Raider Red Meats provides invaluable experience for those who are planning a career in animal and food sciences.
Valentine began working for Raider Red Meats during his freshman year in 2016, and it has helped him gain a well-rounded education.
"After learning the business and becoming aware of what if offers, I felt it was a great place to give back to the university," said Valentine, who will graduate at the end of this semester. "Raider Red Meats provides scholarships, assists in research, helps interns from foreign countries and works to set the standard for the highest quality protein products in the world. This job kept me from getting into a rut of spending too much time doing leisurely activities like video games or watching TV. I was able to stay focused and motivated to complete coursework in the evenings, even after working long hours."
Suttle said working at Raider Red Meats has allowed her to build on other skills as well. Both Suttle and Valentine mentioned how the flexibility in scheduling allowed by Raider Red Meats – Suttle is a member the world-famous Texas Tech Meat Judging Team – has been another advantage and made working there even more appealing.
"Not only have I learned how to properly label, package and complete retail orders for customers both in the store and out," Suttle said, "I have been able to enhance other personal skills, including working with others, communication and responsibility during my time at Raider Red Meats. I have gained experience that will prepare me for any role in the future. I believe Raider Red Meats has been a crucial part in helping me completely take advantage of numerous opportunities during my college career."
Above all else, outside of Raider Red Meats, Valentine, Suttle and the others employed there are students. And this semester is unlike anything they could have dreamed of as to how their spring semester would unfold.
"We have certainly seen a change among our staff," Suttle said. "We truly are a family, and it has been hard, not only with classes being canceled, but also without the social interactions we took advantage of prior to the outbreak. I think everyone is looking forward to eventually having our friends back on campus."
Except for Valentine, who is in his final semester as a Red Raider. It's a semester vastly different than all the others in his time at Texas Tech.
"It has definitely been sad to see campus shut down," Valentine said. "I love Texas Tech and everything about campus life, and one of my favorite things is to see 36,000-plus students making their way across campus. Campus has gone from feeling like home to just a bunch of empty buildings, and it's the exact opposite of how I wanted to end my college career."
Not to mention, all students have had to adjust to a different way of learning.
"I am, personally, not a fan of online classes because I have to fight myself to stay engaged and learn staring at a computer," Valentine said. "Fortunately, I have already completed all my animal science and meat science classes, and my current classes transfer into online classes effectively."
Suttle said she has taken several online classes before this semester, so the transition has been somewhat seamless. But what she misses most is the daily interaction with classmates and professors.
"When specifically dealing with meat and muscle biology classes, I believe this change is somewhat harder due to the lack of lab availability and hands-on learning," Suttle said. "I think Texas Tech is doing everything in its power to maintain student success, but I believe everyone is ready for things to settle down and return to our normal lives."