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Closed Doors, Open Hearts

During a difficult 2020, the SPAM® Museum rose to the challenge
By
  • J.K. Scheeres

May 19, 2021

Category
Story

When Minnesota entered lockdown in March 2020 to fight the spread of COVID-19 and the SPAM® Museum was forced to shut its doors, manager Savile Lord wondered how the institution could stay relevant. In normal times, the local institution would bring in 15,000–19,000 visitors a month from all over the world. But the threat of COVID made the museum’s crowds, the hands-on displays and the free pretzel-speared SPAM™ples too much of a risk. So for months, starting in the early spring of last year, the friendly monument to the SPAM® brand stood empty, its cheery displays unlit, its kitschy, upbeat atmosphere muted.

For Austin, the SPAM® Museum has always been a hub of community activities, from supporting families dealing with autism to hosting farmers markets and chili-tasting events. It was in the nature of the staff of the SPAM® Museum to gather people together. But suddenly, gathering together was the thing you couldn’t do.

“What can we do while people are suffering?” Lord asked herself and her staff.

Serving the Community

One of her priorities was keeping the museum’s 15 employees on the payroll. Normally these “SPAMbassadors™” lead tours and regale visitors with anecdotes about the brand’s history and place in global food culture. After some brainstorming, Lord proposed a new role for her team: helping locals who were struggling under the quarantine.

There were many in need, but the Hormel Foods team focused on two groups: restaurant owners and senior citizens. Restaurants were in a precarious financial position after in-person dining was banned. Senior citizens, many living alone, felt isolated after their community center was shuttered. Lord and her Hormel Foods teammates hatched plans that would help and support both.

Every day during the spring and early summer, SPAMbassadors™ delivered meals from various Austin eateries to 300 senior citizens as part of a $1 million pledge that Hormel Foods made toward COVID-19 relief efforts. One of the grateful recipients, a 95-year-old woman named Edna, told a reporter that seeing the van pull up each day to deliver a tasty box of food made her feel “like a kid at Christmas.”

SPAM Museum

The museum’s efforts were very much aligned with the SPAM® brand’s record of helping successive generations of Americans survive turbulent times. The SPAM® brand was a centerpiece of affordable family meals during the Great Depression and other economic downturns. During World War II it was a portable source of protein for Allied troops across the European and Pacific theaters. Today, SPAM® products remain a reliable mainstay of community food pantries everywhere.

It was a way to say, ‘we know your high school graduation was nothing like it was supposed to be,’ and give them some feeling of normalcy,

Savile Lord, Manager of the SPAM® Museum

In the 84 years since the “meat of 101 uses” first hit grocery shelves and went on to sell more than 9 billion cans, one truth has emerged: In times of crisis and uncertainty, people depend on the SPAM® brand. During the 2008 recession, SPAM® product sales jumped 10 percent. During the first three chaotic and fearful months of the COVID-19 pandemic, SPAM® brand sales rocketed a whopping 70 percent. Lord has an explanation. “SPAM® gives you peace of mind. It’s something you can put in the cupboard and still go eat it years later.”

In early June, as Austin’s high schools did their best to prepare virtual graduation ceremonies, the staff of the SPAM® Museum pitched in again, assembling hundreds of grab bags filled with gift certificates from local businesses, SPAM® sunglasses and assorted Hormel-brand snacks.

“It was a way to say, ‘we know your high school graduation was nothing like it was supposed to be,’ and give them some feeling of normalcy,” Lord said. Tucked among the swag were 350 letters from the senior citizens on the food delivery route, who wrote to the graduating seniors to offer congratulations, small bills and priceless advice. “Set goals with courage and confidence and follow through…go out and do yourself proud!” suggested an 86-year-old who’d graduated from Austin High in 1951. “When you face difficulty, consider saying to yourself ‘I will do this!’ It will give you strength,” urged a man who graduated from Pacelli, the local parochial school, 47 years earlier.

Virtual Live Tours for All SPAM® Fans

As the COVID-19 shutdown dragged into summer — the museum’s busiest months — Lord launched another initiative: virtual live tours. The museum could have posted a pre-recorded video on its website, like many other museums were doing, but Lord wanted something more personable. If there’s one thing SPAM® Museum visitors agree on — as evidenced by page after page of upbeat Yelp reviews — it’s how friendly and knowledgeable the museum staff is. She wanted that warmhearted glow to continue, especially in this trying time. So she equipped the SPAMbassadors™ with the gear they needed to share live video tours over Zoom every day at 2 p.m. Central Time.

Virtual visitors soon began to log onto the tours from around the globe. After all, the SPAM® community, if you will, isn’t limited to a single geographical area; SPAM® products are sold in 44 countries. Every second, 13 cans of SPAM® products are devoured. Recent visitors included a group of British preschoolers and a father from Los Angeles who had made SPAM® musubi with his young son. SPAM® elicits strong reactions from visitors, fired by personal memories and deep cultural associations.

I’ve never heard people tell me their tuna fish story, but I’ve had tons of people tell me their SPAM® story.

Savile Lord

On January 11th, the museum finally reopened for in-person visits. But the virtual tours have proven so popular that Lord has continued them. On a recent Friday, a young SPAMbassador™ named Robin walked 10 virtual tourists around the exhibit hall, fielding their questions and gentle ribbing with humor and grace. She gave them an overview of the history of Hormel Foods and its earliest products and showed them displays on Pacific Island cultures where SPAM® products have been adopted and integrated with their traditional cuisines. And, of course, there was a showing of Monty Python’s famous 1970 comedy skit, in which the SPAM® brand is included in every menu item — to the bafflement of two new customers.

As the tour concluded, Robin gave the participants a fond farewell. “Come back anytime,” she said warmly. “You’re now part of our SPAMily™.”