You grab an empty plate expecting one thing and then stop at the steam tables, shocked. Not a single strip of what brought you to Kent on...

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You grab an empty plate expecting one thing and then stop at the steam tables, shocked.

Not a single strip of what brought you to Kent on the hottest day of the year: beef jerky, and the birthday of Art “Oh Boy!” Oberto, the baron of the leathery snack. The man who took over his family’s sausage business at 16 turned 80 the other day, proving that you can live long and prosper by not working that hard, wearing loud colors and passing out tri-colored pens like Rip Taylor tosses confetti.

You hear that, Gates and Schultz? Because Art Oberto is as much a Northwest icon as you are. He just doesn’t take himself so seriously.

Under a white tent set up beside the company’s processing plant on Wednesday, Oberto was everywhere you looked — every guest received a T-shirt bearing his image.

The man himself was hard to miss, walking around in an Oberto racing jacket and his signature white hat, his name and logo around the band.

“I’m unemployable, undependable and not too smart,” said Oberto, who calls himself a “spoiled brat” fond of late arrivals and early dismissals. The shtick apparently works; Oberto is one of the country’s top meat-snack companies.

Conglomerates have tried to buy him out, “but we’re not for sale. I’ve got a folder of offers in my desk drawer. Why sell out when we own everything and I can control my own destiny?”

As he spoke, tractor-trailers loaded with his family’s products pulled out of the plant, passing Oberto’s “Pepperoni Powered” Lincoln Continental and the “Super Salami” hydroplane, which were parked beside the tent.

Both are keys to the company’s marketing, which started when Oberto used to walk the beaches of Seattle, passing out free jerky and tri-colored pens that read “Stolen from Arthur Oberto.”

“I’m a gimmick fan,” he said.

His son, Larry, told me of riding shotgun in the Lincoln at Sicks’ Stadium in Seattle after high-school football games.

“We’d get mobbed,” Larry Oberto recalled. “And my father would say, ‘Throw the box out the back window so we can get out of here!’ “

The Oberto name, Larry said, is “a blessing and a curse. People ask me for free jerky all the time. But my joke is, I’ll never starve.”

Neither will employees, at least for a little while. Each received an $80 American Express gift card — bearing Oberto’s face — with these words: “I’m giving you this because you’re my gift.”

The party offered proof that Art Oberto has lived well: Dorothy, his wife of more than 50 years, kissed him hard on the lips, drawing hoots from the crowd. His twin sisters-in-law performed a saucy salute to the tune of “Santa Baby.”

And his employees viewed this outsider with a tinge of pity. You don’t know about the chicken? The hand washing? Never heard Nemo from Processing sing? That’s a shame.

“It’s awesome to work here,” said Dawn Dyer, who supervises the company’s Internet department. “Everybody cares about everybody. It’s a goofy bunch of people, and that’s what it’s all about.

“It’s beef jerky.”

Nicole Brodeur’s column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or

His bobblehead’s better than Ichiro’s.