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Esskay Orioles Franks — a Baltimore mainstay — to disappear soon from Camden Yards, store shelves

“Our organization has made the difficult decision to discontinue Esskay hotdogs,” said Chad McFadden, Esskay brand manager for Smithfield Foods. (Baltimore Sun video)

Esskay Orioles Franks, the hot dog once made in Baltimore and long devoured at Orioles games, will disappear soon from store shelves, the brand’s owner said Tuesday.

“Our organization has made the difficult decision to discontinue Esskay hotdogs,” said Chad McFadden, Esskay brand manager for Smithfield Foods, in an email. “We will continue to make Esskay deli meat and chipped beef products, which can be found in Baltimore-area grocery stores.”

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Virginia-based Smithfield, a $15 billion privately held global meat company with a portfolio of dozens of brands that sometimes compete with one another, has been trying to reduce expenses and duplication.

Esskay hot dogs, sold mostly in the Baltimore-Washington market with some sales in neighboring states, represent less than 1 percent of the volume of the company’s packaged meats, the company said.

Discontinued production means that for the first time in decades, Esskay hot dogs will no longer be sold at Orioles games.

“The Orioles have always offered a variety of hot dogs, including Kosher options, at Camden Yards, and there are many brands that are expressing strong interest in bringing their product to the ballpark,” including regional and national brands, said Greg Bader, an Orioles spokesman, in an email.

The ball club plans to choose a new ballpark hotdog, which will be announced with other new food and beverage offerings before the start of the season. And even though Esskay is out, the popular Hot Dog Race will remain, Bader said.

The Baltimore Ravens, which had served Esskay hot dogs at M&T Bank Stadium since it opened in 1998, replaced the brand with Dietz & Watson in 2010.

The old Esskay meats sign that hung over its East Baltimore plant, which closed in 1993.
The old Esskay meats sign that hung over its East Baltimore plant, which closed in 1993. (Jed Kirschbaum / Baltimore Sun)

Esskay hot dogs, promoted by former Orioles great Cal Ripken Jr. in the 1980s, were made in Baltimore until 1985, when Smithfield bought the brand.

In 1993, Smithfield shut down the 72-year-old ham and sausage making plant on East Baltimore Street in Highlandtown that employed 500 people. The hot dogs had been produced most recently at Smithfield plants in Ohio and North Carolina, according to the company. Production stopped during the last three months of last year.

Esskay’s long run at Baltimore baseball games almost came to a halt in 1984. A new concession vendor at the old Memorial Stadium planned to replace Esskay beef-and-pork hot dogs with Perdue chicken franks, but former Mayor William Donald Schaefer intervened with a phone call, the Baltimore Sun reported.

“His message was very clear, and the message was to continue using the Esskay hot dog,” Harry Belinger, a spokesman for vendor ARA Leisure Services Inc., told The Sun in 1984.

Ripken, then Orioles shortstop and the 1983 American League Most Valuable Player, signed a five-year contract in April 1984 with then Esskay owner Schluderberg-Kurdle Co. Inc. to make live appearances for the meat packer and star in print and broadcast advertisements.

One commercial showed Ripken with a locker full of Esskay hot dogs. In 1986, Esskay and the Orioles signed a joint promotion to put game ticket coupons, redeemable for a free ticket with the purchase of another ticket, in one million Esskay Orioles hot dog packages, part of a campaign with the slogan “Hot Dog! We’re Here to Stay!”

Esskay was founded in 1858 by German immigrant William Schluderberg and became Schluderberg-Kurdle — (S and K) in 1919, according to the brand’s website. The former Baltimore plant was built in 1919 and 1920 with upgrades through the late 1950s.

Smithfield announced in September 1992 that it would phase out production at the then aging plant because of structural problems that had been discovered. City officials had hoped to work with Smithfield to replace the plant with a new industrial park anchored by a new Esskay plant, but those plans never materialized.

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A former Esskay Meat Co. president, P. Edward Schenk, told the Evening Sun in 1988 that an emotional connection between Esskay and the city stemmed from it’s long history.

“It is often said that anybody you meet will either have worked at Esskay, or their wife worked at Esskay or their brother or sister or children worked at Esskay,” he said.

Esskay had joined other brands that started in Baltimore but then had their products made elsewhere, such as National Bohemian beer, King Syrup and Parks sausages.

Once a hometown brand is acquired or moves away, it’s hard for it to maintain the same level of loyalty, said Jeremy Diamond, a Baltimore-based food retailing consultant and director of Diamond Marketing Group.

“It’s a big loss because you have all these brands that used to be so famous in Baltimore,” Diamond said. “People can identify with a hometown brand, but once these huge conglomerates start buying up a hometown brand, it loses its meaning for people. You used to bite into an Esskay frank, it tasted like hometown pride. It just doesn’t feel that way anymore to people.”

A brand’s regional identity can be a strong motivator for consumers from that area, said Greg Hoplamazian, an associate professor in Loyola University Maryland’s Department of Communication.

“The idea that a brand is tied geographically or regionally to a city or state is definitely very meaningful,” he said.

But consumers tend to be less loyal to brands than they were in the past, especially younger consumers, he said.

“If you’re a new entrant to a market, people are more willing to accept you than they used to be,” he said. “Younger people are more likely to change brands if another brand offers something better.”

Researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this story.

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