AUSTIN, Minn. – It was a given that Brian Klawitter would visit the new Spam Museum in its first days open.
“I have been waiting with bated breath,” he said, “or Spam breath, I suppose.”
The 59-year-old can name all 15 flavors available in the U.S., a handful of which are currently in his pantry. His birthday cake was shaped and decorated like the classic blue can. He has a signature recipe: “You have not lived until you’ve had bacon-wrapped Spam.”
But less certain was how long Klawitter would hang out in Austin after leaving the bright blue-and-brick building, newly set in the core of this southern Minnesota city’s downtown. When the Lakeland resident visited the museum’s old location a few years back, “we went to the Spam Museum, and we left for home.”
This time, Klawitter and his family plan to stay for lunch.
The folks in charge of Austin and the Hormel Foods Corp. hope the thousands of people they expect to visit the new museum starting Friday will stay, too. They moved the museum from Hormel’s corporate headquarters to its new home on Main Street and Third Avenue Northeast partly to boost nearby businesses.
“When people came to visit, they went to the Spam Museum and then got back on the freeway and left,” Jim Snee, president and chief operating officer, told reporters Thursday afternoon during a media tour of the museum. “So we really didn’t take full advantage of the tourism opportunities for those visitors.”
The free museum, “the world’s most comprehensive collection of spiced pork artifacts,” attracts tens of thousands of people annually. Hormel doesn’t share a more specific figure. For its 125th anniversary this year, Hormel has set a big goal for the new space: 125,000 visitors in the first year.
Before opening its doors to the public Friday morning — a year after breaking ground — the museum will welcome downtown businesses to explore its exhibits.
“Since we’re telling all our visitors to spend time in their spaces, we felt it was really important for them to see what’s in here,” said Nicole Behne, Hormel’s marketing director for grocery products. Wearing a blue shirt and bright yellow necklace, she led reporters on the tour of the bright new space, buzzing with videos: a clip of “Top Chef” that featured Spam, interviews with fans, Monty Python’s “Spamalot.”
Some exhibits were lifted from the old museum, unchanged, including a look at Spam’s role in feeding the troops during World War II. Others — like “World Market,” highlighting fans in Hawaii, Japan and elsewhere — are new.
Tucked throughout: a set of bluegrass instruments made out of Spam cans, a height chart with cans as the unit of measurement, an elevated conveyor belt carrying 780 cans on their 18-minute trip through the museum.
One display lets visitors e-mail themselves Spam recipes, while another tests visitors’ knowledge of Spam facts. Who said, “Without Spam, we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army”? Answer: Nikita Khrushchev.
A gift shop hawks Spam apparel, cookbooks, wine glasses and air fresheners. (The fresheners have a floral scent, a shop employee noted.)
Drawing visitors in
At 14,000 square feet, the new museum is about the same size as the old one near Hormel’s corporate headquarters.
But the former location allowed visitors to exit Interstate 90, park next to the pork paradise, then pop back on the highway. Today, the museum provides a map of “restaurants and attractions” in town — with big stars denoting those that serve Spam products.
Just down the block, Piggy Blue’s Bar-B-Que has long listed a Spam po’boy alongside its half-slab dinner and smothered potatoes. In anticipation of the new location, owner Josh Diaz drew up a special menu featuring Spam, which includes Spam fries, essentially beer-battered strips of the pork product.
The restaurant already got pretty good traffic from the old Spam Museum, less than a mile away. A table of six tourists might have ordered two Spam dishes, Diaz said. He’s optimistic that his new neighbor will bring in more customers. It will definitely be better than the vacant, burned down building there before, he said.
“It’s always great when you can get something that’s a sore spot downtown and put something good there that’s going to attract a lot of people,” said Diaz, who opened the barbecue joint 16 years ago.
City officials said they expect the museum to improve a business district they say is already transforming.
“It’s going to be a different downtown,” Mayor Tom Stiehm said.
Stiehm first ate Spam as part of the C-rations in the Marine Corps. Since he became mayor, he’s been introduced to a level of Spam fandom he didn’t know existed. A TV crew from Honolulu appeared in town one day to interview him. At his sister’s bar in Wisconsin, people lined up to take photos with him.
“It’s a big draw,” Stiehm said. “It amazes me how many people have been to the Spam Museum. It kind of puts Austin on the map in a lot of ways.
“They might not know Austin, but they know Spam.”