Sunday, March 12, 2000

Packo's hot dogs: A legend in Toledo

Even in wake of 'M*A*S*H'-driven fame, business has never been better

The Associated Press

        TOLEDO — Tony Packo Jr. loves talking about food and loves eating his famous Hungarian hot dogs. But what he really loves is serving them just right, no mistakes.

        “Too much sauce, not enough sauce, the meat's too tender, or not tender enough,” he explains between bites. “We take it very seriously.

        “If you've got bad food, the game's over.”

        The windfall of free publicity Tony Packo's Cafe got from Cpl. Max Klinger, the cross-dressing character on TV's M*A*S*H, is history except for reruns. But his business has never been better.

        Packo's ships its hot dog sauce, spicy pickles, and chili across the country. Internet sales are taking off, and grocery stores in more than 20 states carry their labels.

        A new line of Packo's frozen chili is coming out within a month.

        Seventeen years since M*A*S*H ended its prime-time run, folks still travel across the nation to taste Packo's hot dogs and seek out memories from the classic television show.

        Toledo isn't much of a tourist town — more of a stopover on the way to Detroit or Cleveland.

        But even for those just driving through, there are two things everyone wants to do, said Jim Donnelly, president of the Greater Toledo Convention and Visitors Bureau.

        “Everyone wants to go to Tony Packo's, and they want to get a Mud Hens hat,” Donnelly said.

        And they all want to visit because of Klinger. The character played by Toledo native Jamie Farr was a U.S. soldier in the Korean War who longed for Packo's hot dogs and wore a Mud Hens baseball cap. The Packo's name was part of the story line in just six episodes, but that was enough to make it a household name for some folks.

        During summer months, it's a good bet that more than half of the customers inside Packo's are from out-of-state.

        “Almost every day I hear someone saying they were just passing though,” said Robin Horvath, vice president of Tony Packo's.

        Tony Packo opened his street-corner cafe in 1932, and a few years later perfected the famous sausage-and-sauce sandwich during the Depression era.

        It was an instant hit.

        The restaurant is still run by the Packo family — by Tony Packo's children: Tony Packo Jr. and Nancy Horvath, and her son, Robin Horvath.

        In a way, Packo's is Toledo's original theme restaurant.

        There are old photos of area landmarks and hot dog buns encased on the walls, autographed by celebrities who have dined at Packo's — everyone from President Clinton to Phyllis Diller.

        Each bun has a story — like the Burt Reynolds bun that was the first celebrity-signed bun back in 1972. Someone swiped it about a year later.

        “We put up a sign asking the person to return it,” Mr. Horvath said. “It was devastating to us. It was our Mona Lisa.”

        The bun was back within a month. No questions asked, he said.

        The menu hasn't changed in years, offering a taste of the Midwest with its hot dogs, chili and stuffed cabbage.

        “Our menu is the same menu that was here when our grandfathers walked into the place,” Mr. Horvath said. “There are no hamburgers or chicken sandwiches here.”

        It's just what you'd expect from a neighborhood diner in a working-class neighborhood.

        Over the years, there have been hundreds of offers from outsiders to expand the business. The offers still come in as often as once a week — some want to make it into a nationwide chain.

        “Some are more sincere than others, some with more money,” Mr. Packo said.

        There are just four Tony Packo's restaurants, the original and three smaller stores, all in Toledo.


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