If you’re a history buff or fast-food purist, then you’d say Toledo, Ohio hot dog joint Tony Packo’s Cafe was founded almost 90 years ago by the restaurant’s namesake during the Great Depression, using a $100 loan from relatives. If you’re a TV junkie, celebrity obsessive, or kitsch connoisseur, it makes more sense to believe Tony Packo’s Cafe was birthed in the 1970s by the improbable combination of Burt Reynolds and Jamie Farr.
“If you’re ever in Toledo, Ohio, on the Hungarian side of town, Tony Packo’s got the greatest Hungarian hot dogs,” was the cheerful endorsement spoken by Farr’s character in a 1976 episode of M*A*S*H, in a nod to both his actual hometown and a simpler time when seasoned frankfurters slathered in chili sauce counted as an exotic food.
M*A*S*H name-dropped Tony Packo’s several times throughout its run. Twice, the brand became a plot point. Surgeons used sausage casings to kluge a kidney-dialysis machine in one episode. In another, Farr peered through the window of a fictional Tony Packo’s in a fantasy sequence. The eatery got one last shout out in the 1983 series finale, viewed by more than 105 million people—the single most-watched TV program for decades, and still inside the top 10.
The inclusion of Tony Packo’s in M*A*S*H’s world bestowed the restaurant with a transcendent lore similar to Boston’s Cheers or New York’s Magnolia Bakery. It became a nonfictional focal point for fan pilgrimages and cosplay. Yet the cultural memory of a show even as massive as M*A*S*H fades over time, and shockingly, the wattage of Farr’s star no longer burns as brightly. Enter Burt Reynolds, who launched a more enduring Tony Packo’s tradition that surpasses even his considerable legacy—and did it a few years before Farr.
Reynolds was in Toledo back in 1972 as part of the cast of a touring production of The Rainmaker. Whether through an arrangement between the restaurant and the theater or through the designs of Tony’s daughter, Nancy, Reynolds was drawn to the Tony Packo’s following a performance, arriving in a red Corvette Stingray like a real-life Bandit. After a while, someone worked up the courage to ask him to autograph something, and full of mirth and Hungarian food, Reynolds complied by inking his signature onto a nearby hot dog bun.
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After Reynolds, every V.I.P. that trotted through Toledo and into Tony Packo’s needed to sign a bun. Today, there are more than 3,000 collected, according to restaurant management. Real baked bread was quickly swapped out for the superior archival properties of Styrofoam-filled vinyl buns, which were encased in plastic and hung on the walls in Tony Packo’s five locations.
Visiting Tony Packo’s original location today feels like a retro-diner restaurant from ’90s mixed with a drinks-first-dinner-second supper club. Ringlets of colorful glass lampshades hover over plastic red-and-white checkered tablecloths encircled by shiny wood paneling. Gridded displays of autographed buns overpower it all. They are uniform in design, but reveal a wildly heterogeneous definition of celebrity.
No fewer than five U.S. Presidents bent to the bun, in a nod to Ohio’s status as an electoral battleground and to politicians’ penchant for glomming onto anything likable. Gerald Ford inaugurated the tradition, followed by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. You can’t help but wonder if the Reagan/Bush Sr. White Houses bore a grudge against M*A*S*H.
Where the politicians go, reporters follow, and many slots are filled by broadcast personalities, even though we’re starting to stretch the definition of famous at this point, to say nothing of celebrated.
There’s no method to how the buns are lumped together, which allows for the surreal imagining of odd couple persons of note noshing together somewhere in middle America. Patrons can image Jerry Seinfeld eating with fellow ’90s trendsetter Bob Dole.
Or Joan Rivers, who gets a headshot above her bun, scarfing down chili dogs with her Tony Packo’s neighbor Margaret Thatcher, who gets a special type of label that would look at home in a college’s geology wing.
Tom Arnold has at least two signed hot dog buns, perhaps because someone carelessly told him where they keep the fake buns and he helped himself before anyone could stop him. Burt Reynolds hangs above them all, keeping confident court over this peculiar who’s who he established.
They are also unwitting reminders of our past love of celebrities who fell from grace, as once-legendary names are now more apt to prompt a cringe. Yes, a Bill Cosby-signed hot dog bun is still on display.
So uh, what about the food? The chili dogs themselves are fine, if not one-of-a-kind. The chili leans heavy on beef and light on beans, and is closer to a meat sluice consistency of the kind that tops spaghetti downstate in Cincinnati. There’s a low-grade kick to the sauce that attracts admirers. In 1997, NASA mission specialist Donald Thomas, a Clevelander, requested Tony Packo’s chili be included in ship rations on his trip to space. Tangy, juicy fried pickles, and Hungarian-style stuffed cabbage are two rarer items on the menu. All of it qualifies as comfort food.
Truthfully, the food is almost beside the point. Tony Packo’s hit the lottery twice in the 1970s, cashing in on America’s obsession with fame and the value bequeathed by celebrity brands, which turned an otherwise serviceable diner in an ordinary midsize American city into a carnival.
The restaurant hasn’t looked back since. Tony Packo’s survived a legal fight for control among Packo’s heirs at the beginning of this decade, and consists of five locations in the Toledo area, including the original location, where you can visit a gift shop to buy Tony Packo’s shirts just like the one sported by Toledo native Katie Holmes on Instagram.
As it celebrated others’ names inside its walls, Tony Packo’s pushed its own brand out into American homes, introducing canned chili and jarred pickles and peppers into grocery stores across the country.
Tony Packo himself never got to see any of this. He died in early 1963, long before anyone flocked to his restaurant to see autographed buns and M*A*S*H props. But like countless famous people that passed through the doors, he, too, made a name for himself.