Time for another edition of “Allison in Madison,” where I sing the praises of the various aspects that make Madison great. This edition is literally ripped from this week’s headlines, and it’s not good headlines either. As if I wasn’t upset enough with news of a TG protections ordinance being overturned by a vote in Houston, Texas — and how my reaction of disappointment was inverted by some happy bigot on Twitter (perhaps that’s a story for another post) — this news broke on Wednesday: Oscar Mayer, a fixture in Madison for almost a century, will leave this city within the next 12-24 months.
Before I go any further, I am not writing this post to get under the skin of any vegetarians out there. I only write this to highlight the fact that Oscar Mayer has indeed been a big part of the Madison area and the city’s culture. No, Oscar Mayer did not originate in Madison; the company’s namesake, Oscar Ferdinand Mayer, started the company as a small meat market in Chicago in the 1880s. The company would expand to Madison in 1919, when they purchased a meat processing plant here. It has been at that plant that Oscar Mayer produces a wide variety of meat products.
Oscar Mayer and Madison would prove to be a perfect fit, and the company eventually moved their corporate headquarters to MadTown from Chicago. Oscar Mayer would be mainly a family business over the years, in more ways than one: Until the early 1980s, ownership in the company was generally privately-held among succeeding generations of the Mayer family. Likewise, generations of Madison area families have worked at the Oscar Mayer plant, preferring the security and longevity of a familiar company, the chance to move up its organizational chart, and the creed of the founding family: “Lifelong personal development, generous consideration for others, do service to society.”
In addition to the innovations and broadening of its products outside of processed meat, Oscar Mayer has been a symbol of benevolence and generosity toward not only its employees but the community of Madison. The company has been an open supporter of charitable and community organizations here at least here in Mad Town, from food pantries to art events. Outside of that, the company has made memorable contributions to popular culture, including at least one commercial jingle (“Oh I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener…”) as well as this:
Yep, that’s the world famous Wienermobile. Well, a scaled-down version of it anyway, stationed a couple of years ago at Madison’s Capitol Pride Festival (the photo credit is mine). Almost without fail, if there’s some event or tailgate party where Oscar Mayer has some sort of involvement, it’s for sure the Wienermobile will be a part of it.
But, as indicated above, all good things come to an end, and so it is with Oscar Mayer and the City of Madison. One supposes, though, that the writing has been on the wall for some time: The company was bought by General Foods in 1981 and went through one ownership change after another, eventually coming under the auspices of Kraft Foods, who merged earlier this year with H. J. Heinz to form Kraft Heinz. And it’s Kraft Heinz who made the decision this week to close Oscar Mayer factories in Madison and 6 other North American locations. Needless to say, there has been finger-pointing the past 24-36 hours, as well as worries of ripple effects, and the standard community reaction.
When you think of it, it’s a case of being a leaner part of a bigger company, and the bigger company wanting to stay as lean as possible (that’s not a processed meat metaphor) has led to this day. Simply put, this is not the same Oscar Mayer that Oscar F. Mayer founded generations ago, for better and for worse. Speaking as a Madisonian who has never worked at Oscar Mayer nor has known anyone who has or once did, I still share the feeling of heartbreak and concern that has settled on this town since the news broke on Wednesday. I wonder what the future will hold for the 1,000 employees at the factory (that’s a ginormous number for a city like Madison) and the families and other businesses that will feel the pinch.
So, the next time you’re at the supermarket, walk past the meat section (even if you never eat meat), look at the assortment of Oscar Mayer products… and think good thoughts about the community it comes from (for now). Save some good thoughts especially for the many employees, past and present, who put sweat, devotion, and pride to the company that is about to leave them behind.