There’s something cooking in downtown Austin, Minnesota, and Fay alumna Savile Lord ’91 is right in the middle of it. At least five new stores have opened in the past few months. Shops that used to be shuttered on the weekends are opening up to steady traffic, and there is a new energy in the downtown area. To what can this steady increase in economic traffic be attributed?...SPAM®.
Since the SPAM® museum opened in downtown Austin last May, the attraction has brought 75,000 visitors through town. The museum has hosted college reunions, road-tripping families in their RVs, packs of motorcyclists, a Mini Cooper club convention, and even the occasional couple looking for a unique first date destination. “Just like people make a pilgrimage to Graceland, we have visitors that are going out of their way to make a pilgrimage to Southern Minnesota,” says Savile, who manages the SPAM® Museum and community relations for its parent company, Hormel Foods.
SPAM® Makes its Move
Believe it or not, this is not the first SPAM® Museum. In 1991, Hormel opened the Hormel Foods First Century Museum, which featured its SPAM® brand. Another larger museum devoted entirely to SPAM® opened in 2001. However, in rethinking the museum for the company’s 125th anniversary, Hormel took the unusual step of moving the museum from its location adjacent to corporate headquarters to Austin’s downtown area. The move was a purposeful attempt to counteract an alarming trend. “Small towns across the Midwest are dying because there aren’t enough big corporations willing to base their operations there,” says Savile. Relocating the museum to downtown Austin was more than an investment in a flagship brand—it was an investment in the downtown community and the people of Austin. “It’s really great to see a multinational company that’s willing to support its community like that,” she says. “The museum has presented a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with local businesses and see what we can achieve together.”
Savile was uniquely positioned to helm this project. At Fay, and later Miss Porter’s, Savile developed an appreciation for the importance of community. “At Fay, every student has an important part to play in creating the community,” she notes. “You have the ability to change things, and when you work hard, you are rewarded by seeing the results, by being part of the results.”
After graduating with a degree in government relations from Georgetown University, Savile worked for a healthcare lobbying group but quickly became disenchanted with Washington, D.C. and what she perceived as a lack of opportunity for active engagement. She started looking for a career path where she could immerse herself in a challenge and make a difference. In 2011, she joined the Hormel Foods sales force. Meanwhile, in her free time, she volunteered for two community-based groups. The first, Choose Civility, is a local project designed to encourage respect, empathy, consideration and tolerance. The second, the Albert Lea Entrepreneur Advancement Program, is a small business incubator that helps entrepreneurs in Southern Minnesota get their ideas off the ground by providing a mentor program, monthly networking opportunities, a co-working space, gap financing, and a venture capital event called “The Tiger Cage,” which is modeled after the hit TV show Shark Tank. Savile’s experience working with local businesses and her reputation as a community-focused individual led to her being tapped for the challenge of building a SPAM® Museum that would enrich and reinvigorate Austin’s downtown.
SPAM’s Storied History
Perhaps you’re wondering what makes a canned lunchmeat worthy of its own 14,000 square foot museum. SPAM®’s kitschy lore is rooted in its special role in history. Introduced in 1937, SPAM® was the first canned meat that was actually baked in the can, making it a ready-to-eat protein source that early ads touted as a “miracle meat.” During World War II, 100 million pounds of SPAM® were shipped overseas to feed the Allied troops and civilian populations in ration-starved countries like England. The war also spread SPAM® to the Pacific rim, Guam, and Hawaii, where it is affectionately nicknamed “Hawaiian Steak” and is so popular that it appears on the menus at McDonald’s and Burger King. The famous SPAM® skit from Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the hit Broadway musical Monty Python’s Spamalot™ have only continued to raise the miracle meat’s profile.
The museum is designed to educate and entertain. Among its diverse galleries are a wartime-themed World War II exhibit; Can Central, where you can email tasty-sounding SPAM® recipes to yourself, take an interactive quiz, and hashtag to your heart’s delight on SPAM®’s social media feeds; a World Market international gallery that showcases how different cultures use SPAM® products around the world; SPAM® Brand 101, an interactive exhibit that shows how the product is made and allows families to compete against each other in a race to build SPAM® products; an indoor, farm-themed play area for kids; a pop culture gallery featuring the Monty Python SPAM® themed skit, Broadway musical, and SPAM®’s own Sir Can-A-Lot™ character; and, of course, a gift shop containing hundreds of branded items and gifts. Above all of this, a train of 20 different flavor varieties of SPAM® cans winds its way over the museum on a 390-foot conveyor belt.
However, much of the true flavor of the SPAM® Museum is provided by its visitors. Because of its history, “people have a relationship with SPAM®, and that’s not something that you see with a lot of foods,” says Savile. Recently, a gentleman from Hawaii came in to show off his SPAM® can tattoo. “My own father remembers how his mother refused to buy food off the black market during the war and proudly bought SPAM® instead,” Savile says. “People come in with these wonderful stories!”
For Savile, her role helming the SPAM® Museum and acting as its liaison to the local business community in Austin, Minnesota, has been both the challenge and the reward that she was looking for. Again, she finds herself in a community where she can make a difference. “I love that this job allows me to be creative and have fun but to also provide a real service and support to the community.”