When Connor Olson started the spring semester in January, he was one of about five students working in New Mexico State University’s Sam Steel Café, housed in Gerald Thomas Hall.
After the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and NMSU began operating under state health guidelines to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, Sam Steel Café temporarily closed its doors. Olson moved over to ACES Foods, a student-run food production company in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Under the supervision of program manager and instructor Whitney Blickem, students are helping produce orders of gelato and cookies, including 1,800 pecan sandies for Legacy Pecans.
“Community collaboration is a top priority for us at Legacy Pecans, and our partnership with ACES Foods has allowed NMSU students to showcase their talents and get introduced to our customers across the U.S.,” said Heather Salopek, owner of Legacy Pecans. “We are all in this pandemic together. Community collaboration is the key to survival during these trying times.”
Salopek said the pecan sandies by ACES Foods are part of the Enchanted New Mexico Box this season. ACES Foods also prepares pecan pies, brownie mixes and gelato sold at Legacy Pecans.
The partnership has kept ACES Foods busy.
“One of the biggest things that affected us was going from 20 hours of work, which for me combined hands-on work with finishing my homework during downtime, to 20 hours of work in the kitchen nonstop, which I personally love,” said Olson, a Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management major. “I really enjoy working in the kitchen.”
In order to continue abiding by the state’s COVID-19 guidelines, a minimal number of employees are allowed inside the food production facility.
“We try to limit staff to only one person in the kitchen, which is also really nice because being in the kitchen alone has its benefits,” Olson said. “There are times when there’s a large order, and there’s no way we could limit it to less than two people in the kitchen.”
When Blickem and student employees are in the kitchen, they wear masks and gloves, and practice social distancing, along with the facility’s already stringent personal hygiene protocols. Olson said during times when he’s alone in the facility, he’s in constant communication with Blickem via phone calls and Facetime.
“We’ve done what we need to do in a safe way,” Olson said.
This week, student employees will be working on a large gelato order for Landmark Mercantile in Mesquite, New Mexico.
Olson said while he enjoys working in food production, he’s concerned that Sam Steel Café will have to remain closed after the spring semester starts in January.
“Some stuff is still up in the air depending on what happens with COVID. If classes are in person, then we will open up the café,” Olson said. “That’s what we want, because the café is a big money maker for us so closing it has taken a hit on us.”
Olson said one way the public can support ACES Foods is by purchasing the company’s gelato sold at Landmark Mercantile, and the products they produce for Legacy Pecans. Blickem said she is launching online sales to sell ACES Foods products, including brownie and hot chocolate mixes, which were popular items at the Sam Steel Café. Currently, the Sam Steel Café point-of-sale system is supporting online sales for the NMSU Art Department’s student jewelry sale, which will last through Dec. 20.
“Since everything has run smoothly so far, we are interested in using the same platform to now sell our café items,” Blickem said. “We are hoping the jewelry folks will stay on board for their future sales, and I hope we can be that tool for other student organizations across campus in the near future.”