McGinnis: Pickles and peppers — Reflections on Tony Packo’sWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
What defines Toledo? When you ask someone from another area what comes to mind when they think of our town? “M*A*S*H,” definitely. Jamie Farr, by association. Crystal Bowersox, if they were watching “Idol” this year. The Mud Hens.
And, of course, Tony Packo’s.
There may be better restaurants in our area. But none of them are more distinctly ours than the classic hot dog establishment. For nearly eight decades, this home-grown café has served Toledoans a distinct and unique brand of local flavor, served with a side of nostalgia and surrounded by autographed hot dog buns.
I’ve never been a big fan of hot dogs, to be honest. I’m more a hamburger guy. But even I adore my regular trips to Packo’s, as I always go whenever anyone from out of town visits. They always — always — want to stop for a dog or two. Maybe they see it as a rite of passage. You can’t truly say you have visited Toledo until you’ve eaten there.
Tony himself was a born-and-raised native of Toledo, who with the help of a $100 loan, started a business during the deepest financial crisis our nation had ever seen. The original café bore little resemblance to the Packo’s we know today — the famous “Hungarian” hot dogs didn’t even grace the menu at first, which instead focused on sandwiches and ice cream.
The restaurant had long become a local institution by the time a national phenomenon gave it name recognition outside our area. Native son Jamie Farr got to mention it on legendary TV series “M*A*S*H” on February 24, 1976, a date so important to Packo’s history that it’s covered in depth on its official website. Farr’s continual mentioning of Toledo landmarks helped establish the city in the national imagination. And no landmark benefited more than Packo’s.
People all over the nation, hoping to capture the feel of a classic they loved, wanted to see, and taste, this famous dog for themselves. And as the recognition grew, so did Packo’s. The business expanded to include new locations. Tony Packo’s products began to appear in grocery stores. More and more celebrities began to visit and sign those now-famous rolls, a tradition started by Burt Reynolds in 1972. Packo’s became a brand, and the brand became world-renowned.
But now, time has passed. “M*A*S*H” has been off the air for more than 25 years. Any nostalgia and name association attached to the classic has probably diminished in immediate value. And yet, Packo’s still holds a powerful place in our local imagination, one that will probably never be challenged.
Why? Because Packo’s is more than just a restaurant. Its history surrounds you every time you set foot in the place. It is symbolized by the mementos on the wall, most famous of which are the hundreds of autographed hot dog buns that greet patrons as they head for their tables. But the true meaning of Packo’s may lie in its legend.
At its core, Packo’s is an American success story — one that has amazing resonance for our area and the time in which we live. I like to think that when we choose to eat there, when others insist on going, when ears perk up at the name of Packo’s, it all comes back to that humble little sandwich shop, and the man who founded it. Tony, who simply started a restaurant and ended up founding an institution.
Even now, as some rumors surface implying financial difficulties, it is balanced by a calm certainty that Packo’s will never go anywhere. It is far too ingrained in our culture. It means too much to us. There may be other people and places that come to define our area, and perhaps we will embrace them with the same fervor. But no landmark will ever mean quite the same as those world famous, Hungarian hot dogs.
They hold a place in our hearts — and stomachs — like no other ever will.
E-mail Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.