Art Oberto wasn’t satisfied with regular pens. He had to carry four-color pens, usually four at a time, that he would give out to anyone he met, even though the inscription identified the recipient as a thief. “Stolen from Art ‘Oh Boy’ Oberto,” each pen was labeled. “Have fun now!”
Oberto loved a gimmick, whether it was handing out pens, or wearing in public the same red, white and green paper hat that his employees wore in his jerky factory, or driving the “Jerky Mobile,” a 1950s Lincoln also painted red, white and green — the colors of the Italian flag, and the Seattle company he built from the time he was a teenager.
“He was happier than anyone I had ever met,” longtime friend David Williams said. “He had a really good grasp on what life was about. He ran a large company, but he always told me everything you do has got to be good for everyone involved, or it’s not worth doing.”
Arthur Oberto, a Seattle fixture who grew his father’s sausage business into a multimillion-dollar company that was at one point the largest producer of beef jerky in the U.S., died Friday at his assisted-living apartment in Seattle. He was 95.
Oberto had a mild stroke about a week earlier, according to his son Jimi Oberto.
The Oberto company is among Seattle’s most recognizable brands. With its Italian-flag-colored logo, below the “Oh Boy!” slogan, the name has been splashed on bags of jerky and Cocktail Pep smoked-sausage sticks, its former storefront on Rainier Avenue South, and on hydroplanes the company began sponsoring in 1975.
The story of the business, too, was one of Seattle lore: Oberto’s father, Constantino Oberto, came to the U.S. and settled in South Seattle, where he sold sausages created with recipes he brought over from Italy. When Constantino died on Labor Day 1943, his wife and son took over the business. Art Oberto was 16, the only high school student in class with an ulcer, according to a 1998 Seattle Times story.
“I told my mom, ‘Don’t worry; we can run it.’ We had no meat anyhow,” Art recalled in the 1998 story. Meat was rationed because of World War II, but a meat inspector talked other sausage makers into giving Oberto their meat because they felt sorry for the teenager.
A decade later, the family had enough money for a small sausage factory, or so they thought. He had to halt plans halfway through because of mounting costs. He married Dorothy Vennetti and together they borrowed $40,000 to finish construction.
As the business grew, so did the Oberto family, with a daughter and three sons. When son Jimi was an infant, Art Oberto loaded up the motor home — also painted with Oberto colors — and moved the family to Southern California. It was a short endeavor, Jimi said, after some business friends likely told him he was crazy for leaving his hometown.
“He really is a Seattle guy,” Jimi Oberto said in an interview Saturday. “He was born here, he lived here his whole life. He never wavered.”
Since news of his father’s death spread, Jimi Oberto said he heard stories not just about the business, but from former and current Seattle residents recalling the time he sponsored a kids’ sports team, or gave out pepperoni samples, or gave out stickers at a parade. Those one-on-one moments, he said, were what touched people the most.
“He was very blessed in his success and he wanted to pass that on to his community,” said Williams, the executive director of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent, in an interview.
It helped that in many instances, he was also promoting his company, with those gimmicks he loved. That extended to hydroplanes — during a 1975 telethon to fund Seafair, he was sold on sponsoring one. His family lived in the Mount Baker neighborhood next to Interstate 90, so he could watch the races on Lake Washington through his windows.
In 2015, Williams took Oberto for a ride on the lake in a restored vintage Oh Boy! Oberto hydro, powered by an aircraft engine. It was Oberto’s first ride, and the then-87-year-old loved it.
“He was like a 19-year-old beauty queen in a parade, waving the whole way and smiling,” Williams said.
In the early 1980s, Oberto transitioned from president to chair. Over the years, other companies had tried to buy Oberto, but he kept the offers in a desk folder, according to a 2007 Seattle Times story.
“Why sell out when we own everything and I can control my own destiny?” Oberto asked around the time he turned 80. At his birthday gathering, every guest wore a shirt with his face on it.
But Dorothy died in 2013, and within five years he realized he wasn’t able to be as involved as he wanted to because he was getting older, Jimi Oberto said. The family sold the business to Premium Brand Holdings, a food conglomerate based in British Columbia. The Canadian company paid $188 million to acquire Oberto.
The Rainier Avenue store shuttered in 2021 to make way for a four-story school building on the site. A factory store in Renton remains open, selling the same products Oberto gave as samples decades earlier.
Art Oberto was preceded in death by his wife, Dorothy. In addition to Jimi, who lives in Fall City, he is survived by his sons Steve and Larry, and daughter Laura, all of the Greater Seattle area, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The family has not planned services.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.