The Official Hot Dog of Husker Nation is now made in the Land of Lincoln — Illinois, that is.
The 95,000 red-hued, Fairbury-brand hot dogs that Husker football fans will eat this fall at Memorial Stadium will for the first time be stuffed and smoked at a plant in Lansing, Illinois, a city south of Chicago on the Indiana border.
That’s Illini and Hoosier territory.
But the company now making the wieners — Munster, Indiana-based Land O’Frost — said it’s using the same recipe, and that the hot dogs will be just what dyed-in-the-meat Husker fans expect when the season kicks off Sept. 5 in Lincoln against BYU.
Chief Executive Officer David Van Eekeren isn’t making that promise just to fans — he swore it to a higher power.
Before his company bought the Fairbury brand, “Tom Osborne called me into his office.”
“He said, ‘David, before we can let this go forward, I need your word that we will never change the quality, the color or the availability to the University of Nebraska,’ ” Van Eekeren recalled of the former Husker athletic director and coach. He said the promise was a condition of keeping the contracts that let Land O’Frost provide hot dogs at Husker sporting events and call the franks the “Official Hot Dog of Husker Nation.”
When it comes to the dogs, “people have come to expect that they would be available at the games,” Osborne told The World-Herald.
Van Eekeren made that promise in 2012 when Land O’Frost acquired the Fairbury brand from Wimmer’s Meat Products, which had acquired it in 2004 from Roode Packing of Fairbury. All three companies are multigenerational family-owned businesses.
Land O’Frost continued making the hot dogs at the Wimmer’s plant in West Point, Nebraska, until this spring, when it closed the plant and consolidated the operations into its Illinois plant.
About 125 people worked at the West Point plant. A handful of them have continued to work for Land O’Frost in Illinois, helping workers get the red recipe right. While the other jobs were lost, West Point Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tina Biteghe Bi Ndong said many have been hired by other local businesses, and there is interest from a group of investors in opening a pork production operation at the plant.
Land O’Frost has renewed its sponsorship agreement with the University of Nebraska through 2019, Van Eekeren said. The Wimmer’s division, which includes Wimmer’s and Fairbury brands, also will sponsor Husker Sports Network radio programs.
Even though he is — ahem — a Kansas Jayhawk, Van Eekeren said: “We’re proud to be part of the University of Nebraska. The university is so important to the brand and the company that we wouldn’t have wanted to close the deal unless the university was a part of it.”
Fairbury hot dogs have been a Husker game day staple going back to 1962, according to World-Herald archives, with the exception of 1994, when then-Athletic Director Bill Byrne, in a bid to boost his budget, demanded Roode pay $30,000 for the right to sell in the stadium. Roode refused, and another brand took Fairbury’s place, said Tom Roode, a grandson of the company founder and current owner of the family beef business.
Roode said fans demanded the Fairbury dog back, and it returned in 1995. The late ’90s are when Fairbury hot dogs really became a thing, he said. The company amped up marketing on the new HuskerVision video screens, and Roode and son Mark Roode discovered and acquired the hot dog-firing air gun that, in a fan vote, was named Der Viener Schlinger. Van Eekeren was shocked by the Fairbury following, and shocked to see how fans scream for the Viener Schlinger to sling a wiener their way.
“I didn’t truly understand it until my first game,” he said.
Other official Husker concessions sold at games include locally owned Runza and Valentino’s.
Janell Hall, director of concessions operations for the Huskers, said she hopes fans will embrace the now-made-in-Illinois meat.
“It’s still going to be the same hot dog that we have had,” she said. “I would hope that wouldn’t make a difference.”
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