Sat, Dec 24 2011 12:00 PM Posted By: Susan Walter
I was wild with curiosity after reading a brief entry in Steve Schoenherr’s Chula Vista history book: “…the Tunies plant, making a unique product in the South Bay – a skinless tuna weiner that could be eaten like a hot dog.”
Schoenherr cheerfully shared his notes from The Star-News, and from them and an online article from the Prescott Evening Courier I gleaned a fascinating little Chula Vista story.
One Friday night in 1941 a young man named William Lane was attending a college football game. The contest was between two Catholic schools, Loyola of Los Angeles and Santa Clara. Lane noticed an unhappy hot dog vendor. The poor man did not make a single sale that night, and he had 10,000 hot dogs.
Why the poor sales? Catholics did not eat meat on Friday.
Lane went home and thought about this problem. His research showed the average person in the United States ate seven pounds of hot dogs per year. He decided he would figure out how to make hot dogs that Catholics could eat on Fridays.
Fish was the answer: William Lane, you see, was employed by C. Arnholdt Smith.
Smith owned fish canneries (and banks, don’t forget this detail). Lane decided to work with tuna fish.
Will got a friend named Curt Schirmer involved. Schirmer had German sausage making experience. These two young men had a formidable series of challenges ahead of them.
For one, they had to figure out how to deodorize the fish smell from the product. They did. They also had to defish the flavor and they succeeded. A hot dog is supposed to taste like … ummm … a hot dog, right? Did you know in those days there were “1,700 different seasoning combinations used in hot dogs”? They overcame this problem. Tuna falls apart when cooked; but eventually they got it to stay consolidated. No animal fat could be in this product or it would negate the entire offering for Catholic consumption; they figured this out too. The casing had to be skinless and — yes! — Will and Curt triumphed again.
After four years, working only on weekends, they had processed 15,000 pounds of fish and consumed samples of “nearly 150,000 tuna dogs.” Success at last! Undoubtedly relieved, they called their product “Tunies.”
C. Arnholdt Smith financed their efforts. At this point, The Star-News takes up the story. The next obstacle was overcoming a zoning ordinance. Smith, Lane and Schirmer had purchased a meat processing plant in Chula Vista at 636 E St., one block west of Broadway — the former Zounes Meat Company also known as Best-Ever Meat Company — only to find the M-1 zoning allowed meat but not fish processing.
Another issue was that neighboring landowners objected to a fish treatment plant near their adjacent properties. At any rate, a zoning variance was granted, and the neighbors’ objections were quelled.
The Star-News reported that the Tunie “company may hire up to 100 at the plant” in September of 1957. By the next month, ads for Tunies were running, including the news that Bob’s at 100 Broadway was selling them.
So Smith, Lane and Schirmer began production of their tunies, and by 1958 were making 24,000 pounds of them every day. They were diversifying as well; “Martunies” — a tiny cocktail sized weenie, and a salami like product they named “SeaLomi” — was also offered.
Bishop Charles F. Buddy of San Diego was delighted with Tunies. He required them to be served every Friday at the Catholic school cafeteria. Mischievously, he’d invite visiting Catholic dignitaries to lunch, “…rubbing his hands in delight when Tunies were served and saying, ‘Ah, hot dogs, my favorite food.’” With a grin at his shocked visitors, then he’d explain the contents of the “dogs.”
In an interview with Lane, the Courier quoted him as explaining that “everyone told me that my idea was ridiculous. My boss told me that only a man that didn’t know it could not be done would keep on trying. But I knew there had to be an answer to the Friday hot dog problem. Too many Catholic schools have games on Friday night and what is a football or basketball game without hot dogs?”
I do not know what became of Tunies. They were probably a victim of the Pope’s decision to rescind meatless Fridays in 1967. Plans, in 1958, were in the works to open another Tunies plant in Boston. I’ve no idea if this came to pass.
Poking around on the Internet, I found one person referring to Tunies as their “favorite flop.” He claimed Tunies were “C. Arnholt Smith’s 1950s attempt to expand his fish-canning empire.”
Really, though, don’t you agree with me that it’s too bad all of William Lane’s and Curt Schirmer’s heroic work did not result in permanent success — especially now that the United States Catholic Church is considering reinstating meatless Fridays?
© 2009 The Star-News