FELIKS BANEL

Celebrating the life of Seattle’s favorite ‘Pepperoni Pusher’

Nov 16, 2022, 9:29 AM | Updated: Nov 22, 2022, 3:55 pm
Pepperoni...
Art Oberto's 1958 Lincoln, otherwise known as the Jerky Mobile, on display outside the Oberto factory in Kent, Wash. (Courtesy Oberto Specialty Meats)
(Courtesy Oberto Specialty Meats)

A public memorial will be held this Friday for long-time Seattle business owner Art Oberto, who passed away in August at age 95. KIRO Newsradio caught up with one of Mr. Oberto’s sons for a look back at the life of the self-proclaimed “Pepperoni Pusher,” and for a preview of this Friday’s event.

It’s safe to say that nearly everyone in the Pacific Northwest is familiar with Oberto about meat products, including their beef jerky, specialty sausages, and Cocktail Pep. Many people probably also know that Constantino Oberto, an immigrant from Italy, was the founder back in 1918. His son Art took over the business back in 1943 when Constantino died unexpectedly, and Art was just 16 years old.

While local business owners pass away every day, Art Oberto’s death marks the end of an era – when 20th century, post-war economic boom Seattle area ‘retail celebrities’ flexed personalities which were just as enduring as the products they were selling.

From the 1950s on, Art Oberto and his wife Dorothy grew the family meat business into a regional powerhouse, and Art became a local celebrity, all in service of moving the product – not unlike Ivar Haglund of the seafood restaurant chain. Looking back from the perspective of 2022, Oberto and Haglund, who was of an earlier generation and who passed away in 1985, seem to occupy the same category of an entrepreneurial local celebrity.

Though, unlike Ivar, Oberto didn’t orchestrate publicity stunts (like pushing a seal in a pram or scooping corn syrup spilled in a railroad wreck onto a stack of steaming pancakes), he did find ways to become a fixture on the streets and in the meat-hungry minds of the Northwest.

Sometime in the early 1960s, Oberto bought a 1958 Lincoln sedan and painted it Oberto colors – red, green, and white, just like the Italian flag. It was his daily driver as well as a regular fixture in local parades. The “Jerky Mobile,” – which still exists in storage at Oberto’s Kent, Wash. factory, is right up there with the Lincoln Pink Toe Truck if there were ever to be a local vehicle hall of fame.

Art Oberto touched a lot of lives before he passed away in August. The celebration of his life this Friday night at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), says his son Larry, won’t be about someone standing up in front of the room with a microphone.

“It’s about sharing stories,” Larry Oberto told KIRO Newsradio. “We really want people to sit and reminisce and tell stories to one another and mingle and meet new people from different decades and eras that may be there from different parts of my Dad’s life who felt this connection.”

With Larry Oberto’s help, KIRO Newsradio got a head start on the Art Oberto story-sharing.

Larry Oberto says that one of his earliest memories of being a “Pepperoni Pusher” was as a little kid, probably in 1969, giving out free samples of the Oberto sausage known as “Cocktail Pep.” The location of that memory was Sicks Stadium, the old baseball park on Rainier Avenue – not far from the Oberto factory and the Oberto family home – where the American League Seattle Pilots played their one and only season that year before moving to Milwaukee.

The story begins with Art Oberto driving the Jerky Mobile into the stadium parking lot with Larry Oberto in the back seat. The younger Oberto was stationed at the rear window, which has a unique feature on that particular car, looking out over the giant “deck lid” or trunk.

“The rear window rolls down in a ’59 (sic) Lincoln, they roll down,” Oberto said. “So basically, I’m throwing Cocktail Pep out across this land-yacht trunk, and we end up getting swarmed and mobbed.”

It got so crowded Art Oberto decided it was time to leave.

“My dad just yells, ‘Larry, throw the box out,’ and I throw the box as far as I can, pushing it out of the back,” Oberto continued. “People scramble, and he punches the gas and gets out of there.”

Larry Oberto says behind the showman façade, Art Oberto was seriously into self-improvement and was constantly sharpening his professional skills. This meant attending night classes at business school and special seminars.

To help retain what he learned, Larry says his father specially modified a briefcase by cutting a hole in the side and adding a key piece of hidden equipment.

“And in this briefcase was a reel-to-reel recorder, and then it migrated to a cassette recorder,” Oberto said. “So he would record all these night classes at business school, and then he would listen to them when he was shaving, or he had a speaker under his pillow.

“So he would secretly tape all these business seminars against the rules,” Oberto said.

In Seattle in the 1970s, there was no rule against any business sponsoring a hydroplane, so it was natural that in 1975, Oberto got into the world of thunderboats. Art Oberto hired veteran driver Chuck Hickling to compete at Seafair in a race boat painted, like that big Lincoln, in Oberto colors.

But, unlike the Miss Thriftways and Miss Bardahls and other legendary racing teams, Larry Oberto says his dad just wasn’t that interested in winning the race.

“The first boat he sponsored was Chuck Hickling, and he wanted Chuck Hickling to drive by the shore and wave this big vinyl stuffed sausage at the crowd on the beach,” Oberto said.

“Chuck Hickling was all upset and mad at him, ‘Because we’re a race team!'” Oberto said, imitating a Hickling as a serious competitor frustrated at having been reduced to a waterborne sausage salesman.

“Sponsoring a boat was just another way for [my dad] to push his pepperoni sticks and go meet the people,” Larry Oberto said – though a new and improved Miss Oberto eventually did win a number of Seafair races in the early 2000s.

Through all the winning years of Oberto products, the secret spice recipes have been at the heart of the business. The recipes, in some cases, go way back to 1918 and founder Constantino Oberto, and back to Italy before that. Though the Oberto family sold the company four years ago, Larry Oberto has vivid memories of the safe where the secrets were kept.

“The combination used to be M-I-L-K [and then] something else,” Oberto said. “I remember it, and it was this big, it was this huge, huge safe . . . it must have been about like three feet, three-and-a-half-feet tall, cubed, on wheels. And that’s where the recipes were.”

Though Larry Oberto remembers part of the combination – and even somewhat surprisingly shared a little bit of that priceless secret – he has no idea where the old safe ended up.

He just hopes that this Friday night at MOHAI, others will just as willingly share priceless parts of his family’s history and of the history of Oberto.

If you go: Art Oberto’s Celebration of Life will be Friday, November 18 at 7 p.m. at MOHAI at Lake Union Park. Larry Oberto said Monday that plans are in the works to possibly bring the Jerky Mobile to the event and have it parked outside the museum.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Celebrating the life of Seattle’s favorite ‘Pepperoni Pusher’