Each Wednesday, in a basement on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, a line quietly forms just before 2 p.m.
In it are people who have heard — from a friend, from a co-worker — the rumor about a cache of tasty cheese, meat and ice cream sold for cheap out of a makeshift store.
Marcia Holman got word two decades ago and, most months since, has queued up in a campus hallway. “I had a friend who worked on campus and always got cheese and ice cream,” she says, “so she turned us onto it.”
She checks her phone: It’s 1:48. Two others join the line. They know what Holman knows: Cheese curds, if they’re available, sell out quickly. Today, the 70-year-old Minneapolis resident is also looking for Nuworld spread, a soft blue cheese with a storied history. “It’s all wonderful,” she says. “I’m definitely here for the cheese first, and if I’m going right home, sometimes I’ll get ice cream.”
At 2 p.m., fluorescent lights flick on, doors swing open and red baskets appear. The Dairy and Meat Salesroom is open.
Suddenly, a dozen shoppers are grabbing pints of ice cream from cases, hunks of cheese from refrigerators, packs of brats from freezers. Since the 1960s, university students and staffers have stocked a dairy salesroom to make use of products concocted in food science classes and by researchers. So what was for sale hinged on what needed to be used up.
Which only adds to the charm of this odd little shop. “I have a lot of people who say, ‘I never knew you existed,’ ” says Jodi Nelson, whose title is senior laboratory services coordinator but is known, in this corner of campus, as the cheese lady. And these are “people who have worked on the Minneapolis campus for years!” she adds. “When we were upstairs and just selling cheese and ice cream, I basically knew everybody who came in.”
Visibility improved in 2013, when the salesrooms selling dairy and meat merged. Now, curd-lovers and bacon-lovers move through the same line that winds along a row of freezers in a tiny, brightly lit room across the hall from a grain biopolymer research laboratory. (Because of construction on its home base, the Andrew Boss Laboratory of Meat Science, the shop is temporarily tucked into the basement of the Food Science and Nutrition building.)
The dairy comes from cows on campus, the meat from animals raised here or on U-affiliated farms. More customers these days ask whether the cows are grass-fed. But the animals are conventionally raised.
Prices are low — a shrink-wrapped, half pound of creamy Havarti goes for $3.10 — and proceeds flow back into the programs, paying for salaries and supplies. “That’s what keeps us afloat,” says Dallas Dornick, senior processing technician for the meat side of things. Bacon is the biggest moneymaker, he says, but brats run out, too. When Gophers head football coach P.J. Fleck started, they asked him what he wanted in a bratwurst, then concocted it: The “Row the Boat” brat is filled with pepperjack cheese and beer. U presidents, too, get their own ice cream varieties.
“It’s nice to see the same people come in every week and do their shopping at our little store,” Dornick says. “It makes you feel like you’re needed, like you’re a small-town grocery store or meat locker.”
Devotees also come for Nuworld cheese, developed decades ago by the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin. Food scientists took penicillium roqueforti, which forms the bluish veins in blue cheese, and cultivated a white strain, hoping to entice customers wary of mold. It never took off. But in this storeroom, it enjoys cult status.
A half-hour into a 2-to-5 p.m. sale in September, two women walk in, beeline to a refrigerator and sigh at the sign on its door: “Sorry out of Nuworld spread,” it says, above a frowny face.
“Jodi, you still don’t have the Nuworld spread,” whines Amy Mathiowetz, a research assistant in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition. “That feels like a personal attack.”
“We have an abundance of crackers,” explains Rachel Mitacek, a graduate student. The friends often find themselves in this basement store on Wednesday afternoons, she says. “I come here looking here for one thing … and leave here with ice cream.”
Supply and demand are strange levers in this little storeroom, where the ice cream varieties are scrawled on a white board. For a while, there was a run on corn ice cream after the new U president, Joan Gabel, tried it at Farm Fest, liked it and asked that it be served in her suite at football games.
Other varieties, churned out for specific events or groups, turn out to be less popular, Nelson adds: “Jalapeño lime still haunts us.”
Growing up, Nelson remembers stopping — on the way to her grandmother’s house — at a little cheese factory in Zumbrota, where they’d buy cheese curds so fresh they’d squeak. She’s since become a self-described cheese snob. “Cheesemonger,” she corrects herself. “Maybe that’s a better word.”
This store is supposed to be 5% of her job. But it eats up way more.
On this Wednesday, the store is short-staffed, so Nelson joins a student worker at the pair of cash registers, tallying prices, bagging cheeses and swiping credit cards. Smiling, she greets many customers by name, offering advice and spoons: “You never know when you’re gonna get stuck in traffic.”