Jason Ertl made quick work with a boning knife, casually separating tenderloin from the side of beef. A few more cuts, one quick pull and the tenderloin was free. Ertl heaved the slab of meat along with all the other cuts onto the table. He picked up his knife and continued his work.
Ertl is a student employee at the University of Minnesota meat lab, set in a drab basement in a St. Paul campus building, where he and his colleagues learn to harvest, cut, package and sell locally raised meat to the public.
In an industry that often relies on assembly lines and mass production, the managers of the meat lab do things differently, teaching student employees about the whole process.
It's part animal science, part age-old craft.
Dr. Ryan Cox, the faculty adviser to the meat lab, said that's the intent.
"There's no such thing today as a modern all-around butcher, where they go from start to finish, where that's something we do teach in our lab," Cox said.
The holistic approach is designed to give students a better understanding of the meat industry. "I kind of know all the steps from raising a newborn calf all the way through slaughter to a retail product," said Kyle Mathews, a student technician who works in the meat lab. "It just gives you a better idea where that meat is going and how it's used."
The majority of the seven to 10 students who work in the lab study animal science and some will work for meat processing companies, teach or return to family farms when they graduate. Their work in the lab adds a technical craft component to a science-based education.
Harvesting and processing meat is a task that would make many squeamish, to say the least. The students at the meat lab, however, are not shy about diving into the grislier jobs, according to Tristan McNamara, the lead processing technician in charge of the students.
"The more you let them do, the more you let them get involved in, the more willing they are to do anything, really," McNamara said.
Founded in 1901, the meat lab was the nation's first. While it enjoys a growing following, the lab in recent years has had its share of challenges, hampered by older equipment and slow sales.
Cox was brought in a few years ago to help revamp the lab and McNamara, a former student employee in the lab, came on full-time in 2009 to manage the student employees.
Since his arrival, he has noticed an increase in public attention. "It's almost every week, I'll talk to somebody, and they'll say, 'Oh, I never knew you guys were even here,'" McNamara said.
He partly attributes this jump in business to the greater variety of products for sale in recent years. The lab offers various beef, pork, lamb and poultry cuts, as well as snack sticks, jerky and an array of sausages.
But beef is king. The lab harvests 20 to 25 beef cattle a year, which come from the U's research and education sectors. They quickly promise half a section of beef to customers who call in bulk orders. "With beef, all the ones you see hanging in there, I already sold," McNamara said, referring to a couple of massive beef carcasses that hang whole from hooks in the lab cooler. What doesn't make it to sale right away gets stored in the freezer, but come wintertime, the lab starts to run low on beef, according to McNamara.
Customers who do know about the lab rave.
"The quality is really good," said Gwen Krueger, a U employee. "It's really good food. It's really good meat."
Bacon is the best selling product, according to McNamara.
Cindy Irons, a loyal meat lab customer for the past eight years, agrees. "Their bacon is by far the best I've ever had."
Will they reveal the secret to what makes the bacon so special? "Probably not," McNamara said with a smirk on his face.
It's not only the quality of the meat that brings customers to the St. Paul campus; it's a desire to buy locally sourced meat. Brandon Karolevitz said he buys about 90 percent of his meat at the lab, "mostly just due to the freshness."
According to Cox, they never intended to be associated with the local food movement.
The primary goal of the meat lab is to educate student employees and the public, Cox said. Ideally, he wants "more people to understand where their food comes from, more people to understand safety of food, more people to understand the humane nature in which food is harvested."
For Ben Thorpe, a sophomore, the workplace education he receives from Cox and McNamara makes him passionate about the meat process from start to finish.
"Basically, students run this place ... and when we do all the work and get to watch the people come in and buy the meat, we take pride in the work that we do," he said.
Peter Funk is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.