I never got to see the “Hot Dog Highway.” I don’t even remember when I first saw a picture of the assembly-line contraption that sent who knows how many hundreds of thousands of sausages endlessly along a fourteen-or-so-lane conveyance machine that captured my imagination more than the Wienermobile itself. In fact, I really didn’t visit the production facilities much during my half dozen or so visits to Oscar Mayer headquarters during my journalism career. But like virtually every other Madison resident of any tenure, the company’s existence was omnipresent in my life.
I think of the importance of Oscar Mayer to me, to say nothing of my hometown of choice and heart, in three interwoven components.
The first is the iconic example of twentieth-century popular food culture that married the kitsch of “Little Oscar” to one of the brands parents trusted enough to put in millions of school lunchboxes. I have a Wienermobile whistle in my desk drawer. I never stop enjoying my friend and colleague Doug Moe’s story of interviewing the man responsible for creating the famous jingle, “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener.” “Lunchable” is an actual word. “My bologna has a first name, it’s O-S-C-A-R.” And on and on. Oscar Mayer was an American success story. And its home was here.
The second component is a little less fun. Processed foods started getting an increasingly, and well-deserved, bad rap. And Oscar Mayer was an easy poster child for the worst of processed food. Now, let me confess; despite my very best efforts, dozens of stories and jokes and warnings galore, I am incapable of not liking hot dogs. My Milwaukee-bred preference is Usinger’s. But I can’t walk past Gray’s Papaya on 72nd and Broadway in New York City without stopping in for a hot dog. National Coney Island is my guilty airport pleasure of choice in Detroit. A dog and a beer, please, at any ballpark anywhere. But after more than a dozen years of drinking the Slow Food Kool-Aid (wow, how’s that for a mixed metaphor?), I have to advise: Do as I say, not as I do. The processed-food industry is a questionable investment strategy, particularly for a city that wants to be known as healthy.
But the most important and meaningful reflections I have of Oscar Mayer are its people, its leaders, and its contributions to the civic infrastructure, philanthropic interests and community assets of our city and region. Take away the logo and the Lunchables and you still have a legacy of corporate citizenship and a workplace environment of giving back that has marked Oscar Mayer since it arrived in Madison in 1919. I got to meet a fair number of company leaders, including the late Hal Mayer and more recent presidents like Rick Searer and Nick Meriggioli. Heck, then-University of Wisconsin–Madison chancellor Donna Shalala plucked fortune-changing former athletic director Pat Richter from Oscar’s fertile corporate offices. All were or are seriously good people, smart, thoughtful, caring and generous.
It’s interesting that for as well known as the name and brand were, the company often kept a surprisingly low profile when it came to its many community contributions. For every sponsorship of United Way of Dane County’s Day of Caring or gift of an east-side baseball field, Oscar Mayer made scores of community-changing gifts for which it deflected direct credit. That modesty too was a reflection of its hometown.
Oscar Mayer was also one of the first and most committed companies to promote diversity. African Americans in particular were visible in high-level management positions. The problem was that corporate kept promoting them to bigger jobs in Oak Park, or Chicago, and we couldn’t keep that talent here.
It’s a loss to be sure. Thankfully, Madison has never been a one-company town like Peoria (Caterpillar) or Toledo (Ball Glass). But Oscar Mayer has helped define our town for a century, and its influence and impact will be felt for that long or more.