Oberto Snacks Inc. (Kent)

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 7/24/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20610

One of the most iconic and beloved of Northwest companies for more than a century, Oberto Brands, a business producing beef jerky, pepperoni, and other smoked meats, was family-owned until its 2018 sale to Canadian food conglomerate Premium Brand Holdings. The company's founder, Constantino Oberto (1889-1943), an Italian immigrant, began selling his hand-made Italian sausages in 1918 from a small shop in South Seattle. The company's reputation really soared under Constantino's son Art (b. 1927), whose great energy, unstoppable optimism, and distinctive personality helped Oberto Brands grow into one of the top three names in the snack-meat industry worldwide. The company is headquartered in Kent, in south King County, where it employs more than 500 people, and in honor of its 100th anniversary, the City of Kent renamed the street on which the headquarters is located as Oberto Drive. Following the sale to Premium Brand Holdings, the company changed its name to Oberto Snacks Inc.

Hand-made Italian Sausages

Constantino (also written as Constantin) Oberto was born in 1889 in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. He immigrated to Seattle in 1918 and, with his uncle, began making sausage, salami, pastrami, coppacola, and other specialty meats, using traditional family recipes. At first, Oberto sold his products door-to-door to small delis and grocery stores and then opened the Oberto Sausage Company at 1326 Dearborn Avenue in Seattle.

"Constantin Oberto was a good sausage maker, a fair businessman and a terrible card player. He constantly gambled earnings from the business. [Wife] Antonietta faithfully kept him out of debt, issuing him a promissory note each time she paid a marker. On his worst night, Constantin lost $800. By the time Constantin died, he had accumulated $10,000 of unpaid notes" (Kugiya).

The couple had two children: daughter Irma and son Art. When Constantino died unexpectedly in 1943, Antonietta Oberto and 16-year-old Art took over the company. Although still a student at West Seattle High School, the boy pitched in wholeheartedly. Each day before school he started up the production plant, and after classes ended he rode his bike around town delivering sausages and cured meats to customers. Friends and family members encouraged him to sell the business but he refused.

At the time of Constantino's death, the country was engaged in World War II, which meant meat was in short supply. One of Seattle's meat inspectors felt so sorry for the young owner that he encouraged other butchers to share their meat with him so that Oberto's could stay in business.

"When he assumed the family business, he kept going to school, determined to graduate from West Seattle High School -- which he did. 'I was determined to make this business work; I wanted to build it,' Oberto said. Oberto Sausage barely survived the meat shortage of World War II. It was the only time the business has lost money, Oberto said" (Mulady).

To Rainier Avenue, and then Kent

Somehow the family managed to survive the war years. By 1953, Oberto and his mother had saved up enough money to outfit a small sausage factory at 1715 Rainier Avenue in the Italian neighborhood known as "Garlic Gulch" for its proliferation of Italian immigrants. Halfway through construction, funds ran out and the Obertos had to put the project on hold.

Ever the optimist, this did not derail Art Oberto's plans. In 1954, he married Dorothy Vennetti (1934-2013) and together the couple took out a loan to get the project moving again. To save money, the newlyweds moved into the basement of Art's boyhood home. Later, they built a small house attached to the side of the Rainier Avenue sausage factory and moved their residence there. Art Oberto was a natural salesman and a gifted entrepreneur; his wife Dorothy was friendly and fun-loving. Together, they made a formidable pair.

The Rainier Avenue building remained the company's headquarters and production plant until 1978. That year Oberto moved to a new headquarters in south King County, on South 238th Street in Kent, where it opened a new plant employing 150 workers. The company retained the Rainier Avenue location.

Quirky Marketing a Company Hallmark

In the 1960s, Art Oberto began producing beef jerky for a customer who wanted an inexpensive food item to sell in his bar. The inspiration is said to have originated with Dorothy. Easy to pack and ship, jerky was the perfect product to help Oberto expand the sausage business. It was an instant success and remains a bestseller, helping the company become one of the top three snack-meat producers in the world. By 1983, five years after the move to Kent, company sales exceeded $20 million and 250 workers were employed at three sites, and by 1994, Oberto was the top jerky manufacturer in the U.S.

Art Oberto used all kinds of gimmicks to promote his business. In the early years, he walked the beaches of West Seattle, passing out free jerky and tri-colored pens that read "Stolen from Arthur Oberto." He bought a 1957 Lincoln Town Car, painted it with the company's red, white, and green branding (the same colors as the Italian flag) and called it the Jerky Mobile. For many years, it was his only vehicle and he could be seen tooling around Seattle in it day and night. He also had a mobile home decorated with the Oberto logo, which he let employees borrow for family vacations.

One of the most distinctive aspects of the brand was its youthful slogan: "Oh Boy! Oberto." The phrase originated about a decade after Art took over the business. "In the 1950s, a teacher Oberto met while taking night school classes inadvertently coined the company's slogan. Oberto regularly came to class bearing sausage and meat sticks to share. The teacher inevitably exclaimed, 'Oh, boy! Oberto!' It stuck" (Mulady).

Although Art Oberto did his share of product promotion, one high-visibility placement had nothing to do with his efforts. In the 1993 film Grumpy Old Men, starring Jack Lemmon (1925-2001), Walter Matthau (1920-2000), and Ann-Margret (b. 1941), the company's pepperoni sticks made a surprise appearance on the large screen. In one scene Jack Lemmon is wandering through a convenience store when he stops to pick up a package of pepperoni sticks off the shelf. The Oberto logo, with its signature red, white, and green packaging, is clearly visible.

Like her husband, Dorothy Oberto marched to her own drummer. She was not just the wife and partner of a successful business owner but she also relished her role as "company mom" to many of their employees. She loved to travel and host parties and was often seen sporting rainbow-colored glasses. One of her favorite slogans was "Life is an adventure" (Hullett).

Dorothy also had a great sense of humor. At her parties, she liked to circulate among the guests and would seat newcomers next to her at the table. "When others asked if she wanted to sit next to her husband, she would reply: 'Why? I see him all the time'" (Hullett). A 1998 Seattle Times profile of the couple reported:

"Art Oberto always had gimmicks ... During the Christmas season, he passed out snacks all over the city from his Oberto-decorated mobile home, the same one he let employees borrow for family vacations. Dorothy is a match for Art's eccentricity. She commissioned a glass artist to create a 20-foot aquarium of glass fish, suspended by nylon filament, in their Leschi home. She is not above planting a 500-pound bronze Buddha in the living room or posting life-size sculptures of her kids in their back yard, which fronts Lake Washington" (Kugiya).

The couple was married for 58 years until Dorothy's death on April 1, 2013, at the age of 79. On April 13, about 100 of the 500 mourners at her funeral marched to the lively beat of a steel-drum band down the street from St. James Cathedral to the Paramount Theatre. The entourage was led by 86-year-old Art, who made his way supported by a walker. As the group approached the theater, the Paramount's large outdoor marquee read "Dorothy Oberto's Life's An Adventure Tour" (Hullett).

Staying True to His Roots

Art and Dorothy Oberto had raised four children: Laura, Steve, Larry, and Jimi. (In 2017, Larry Oberto, sports-marketing director of the company, ran unsuccessfully for Seattle mayor.) Although the family had accumulated enough wealth over the years to live a privileged lifestyle, money did not change Art's basic nature, as the 1998 profile noted:

"Although he can certainly afford better, lunch is typically a hamburger on white bread, dressed only in iceberg lettuce, with Ovaltine to wash it down. Art, a child of the Great Depression, certainly doesn't spend his money on clothes, dressing in plaid shirts and 30-year-old suits in shades of blue more suited to drapes. His briefcase is a plastic mesh shopping bag. His money goes toward gadgets, tape recorders, televisions, switches, relays, battery chargers. Dorothy indulges Art's soldering kits; Art indulges Dorothy's Julio Iglesias wall clock" (Kugiya).

Art Oberto stepped down as company president in 1983 and switched to the title of chairman emeritus. No longer involved in the day-to-day business, he nevertheless attended board meetings and company events well into his 80s.

With such a distinctive personality at the helm, the company continued to leverage Art's unique character. A post shortly before Father's Day in 2018 on the company website began with the headline "All I Really Need to Know About Being a Dad I Learned from Making Jerky," and quoted multiple adages attributed to Art Oberto, with each phrase appropriate for a snack-food company: "Never be artificial," "There is a recipe for success," "Don't bite off more than you can chew," and so forth ("National Beef Jerky Day!").

A Leader in Sports Promotion

Always ahead of his time where marketing was concerned, Art Oberto was an early investor in sports promotion. In the early years, the company was a radio supporter of the Seattle Rainiers, a Pacific Coast League baseball team, and then went on to sponsor a boat on the hydroplane circuit called the Oh Boy! Oberto. On and off for the next four decades, the Oberto hydroplane competed around the country, winning the national championship several times.

In 2014, Oberto Brands launched a new multimillion-dollar national-broadcast marketing campaign that revolved around "the little voice in your stomach," a character played by ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith. In the broadcast spots, top athletes were advised to take time out of their busy practice schedules to enjoy a high-protein snack. The commercial incorporated the company's new slogan:"You get out what you put in."

"In the new broadcast commercials ... world champion cornerback Richard Sherman joins the Oberto portfolio of high-profile athletes Clint Dempsey (U.S. Men's National Soccer Team and Seattle Sounders FC), Brian Urlacher (all-pro linebacker and football analyst) and Louie Vito (pro snowboarder and X Games host) as elite competitors looking to get the most out of their bodies -- by putting all natural protein in" ("Elite Athletes Headline Oberto's New Marketing Campaign").

Oberto Brands also had a significant advertising presence at Seattle Mariners' baseball games and was a sponsor of the Seattle Sounders, the city's Major League Soccer team.

New Products and Other Changes

As a top national manufacturer of beef jerky, the company, like so many others, had to keep up with the times. Recognizing increased consumer interest in all-natural foods, Oberto adjusted its meat recipes, removing corn syrup, preservatives, dextrose, and other artificial ingredients. It created turkey jerky in 1994 and was the first jerky company to introduce an all-natural beef jerky product in 2011.

The search for new products that would appeal to a wide consumer base was never-ending. In 2016, the company launched a trail mix combination that paired jerky with nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and chocolate pieces. Products are sold under the brand names Oberto, Pacific Gold Reserve, and Cattleman's Cut, and the company is also a private-label manufacturer. Manufacturing strategy saw some changes, as well:

"In 2010, [Oberto] brought manufacturing back to Kent after a stint making products in Brazil. In 2012, it announced plans to open a factory in Nashville, Tennessee, in response to rapidly growing demand. In early 2016, a year after [Tom] Hernquist was hired as CEO, Oberto Brands said it would close the Nashville plant, sell another facility in Albany, Ore., and consolidate operations at its Kent headquarters. The company said ... that the business is 'thriving, and we continue to hire and invest in our people and our products.' Other observers see the company's growth stalling as it faces many of the same generational and technological changes roiling other manufacturers and retailers" (Romano, "Oberto Brands, After a Century ...").

Purchased by Premium Brand Holdings

In early 2018, Oberto management announced it was exploring options for the company's future. By April 2018, the company announced its sale to Premium Brand Holdings, a food conglomerate based in Richmond, British Columbia, for approximately $188 million. The new owner confirmed that Oberto Brands would remain in Kent and its 500 employees would be offered similar positions. Premium Brands was already a familiar name in the Seattle food industry: In 2015, a subsidiary of Premium Brands purchased Isernio, another iconic Seattle-based sausage company, which had been founded by Frank Isernio, also the son of Italian immigrants. With its sale to Premium Brands, Oberto Brands began doing business as Oberto Snacks Inc.

In a May 31, 2018, company press release announcing the completion of the sale, Art Oberto said: "Our family is proud to have built and run Oberto for the last century ... The sale of our business to Premium Brands not only ensures that its culture and values will be honored, but it will position Oberto for another 100 years of success" ("Oberto Brands Sale Closes").

Maintaining Community Ties

On May 17, 2018, as part of Oberto's 100th-anniversary celebrations, the City of Kent renamed a short section of South 238th Street, just east of the West Valley Highway, as Oberto Drive. The eastern terminus of that roadway, now designated 7060 Oberto Drive, had been the site of Oberto headquarters since the 1978 move to Kent. In 1997, the company built a new 100,000-square-foot headquarters and manufacturing plant on that site to accommodate its growing workforce.

True to its roots and mindful of its history, the company also retained its red brick building on Rainier Avenue in Seattle, where Art and Dorothy Oberto got their start. As of 2018 that location served as the company's factory outlet, complete with neon green and red lights and the Oh Boy! Oberto logo. Packed to the ceiling with all kinds of jerky -- beef, pork, turkey, bacon -- along with other snack-meat products such as microwaveable pork rinds, and with most items discounted, the outlet store had become a popular destination for both locals and out-of-town visitors.


Sources:

Hugo Kugiya, "The Self-Made Man: Corporate America Does Not Have Much Room for Types Like Art Oberto, Candid in a Way That Frightens Most Managers -- Then There's The Jerky Mobile," The Seattle Times, January 11, 1998 (www.seattletimes.com); Nicole Brodeur, "Jerky King Prefers to Be a Jester," Ibid., July 13, 2007; Alysa Hullett, "Dorothy Oberto, 'Company Mom' and Free Spirit, Dies at 79," Ibid., April 20, 2013; Benjamin Romano, "Oberto Brands, After a Century of Making Jerky, Explores a Sale," Ibid., February 13, 2018; Benjamin Romano, "Premium Brands, a Company with More Than 47 Brands Under Its Ownership, Is the Buyer of Kent-based Oberto, a Family-owned Meat Snack Maker," Ibid., April 12, 2018; Kathy Mulady, "You Never Sausage Determination as Built Oberto," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 25, 2002 (www.seattlepi.com); "Oberto Brands Sale Closes, Secures Future Success" (Oberto Brands press release), May 31, 2018, Cision PR Newswire website accessed June 29, 2018 (https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/oberto-brands-sale-closes-secures-future-success-300657283.html); "Art Oberto on Evening Magazine 1993" (video), YouTube website accessed July 24, 2018 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5DXdes-TqU); Larissa Faw, "Oberto Celebrates 100th Anniversary with Seattle Sports Tie-Ins," May 8, 2018, Mediapost Agency Daily website accessed June 29, 2018 (https://www.mediapost.com/publications/article/318923/oberto-celebrates-100th-anniversary-with-seattle-s.html); Steve Hunter, "Kent Street Gets New Name of Oberto Drive," The Kent Reporter, May 17, 2018 (http://www.kentreporter.com); "Art Oberto's Tribute to Dorothy Oberto," YouTube website accessed July 24, 2018 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=miBahOD8tTU); "The Pepperoni-powered American Dream," Washington State Department of Commerce website accessed June 29, 2018 (http://choosewashingtonstate.com/success-stories/oberto-sausage-company/); "Elite Athletes Headline Oberto's New Marketing Campaign" (Oberto Brands press release), May 7, 2014, MarketWired website accessed July 3, 2018 (http://www.marketwired.com/press-release/elite-athletes-headline-obertos-new-marketing-campaign-you-get-out-what-you-put-in-1907299.htm); "National Beef Jerky Day!" Oberto website accessed July 23, 2018 (https://www.oberto.com/news/2018/6/12/national-beef-jerky-day).


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