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Published: Thursday, 4/24/2003

Packo's Caf co-owner nurtured legacy

Nancy Packo Horvath, former co-owner of Tony Packo's Caf and founder of the Tony Packo Food Co., died early yesterday of cancer at the Hospice of Northwest Ohio in Perrysburg Township. She was 70.

Family members said she had been ill about five months.

“It was a phenomenal battle from a phenomenal lady,” said her son, Robin Horvath. “She did everything she could to beat the cancer. That was the story of my mother's life. Whether it was personal or professional, whatever she did was done with 150 percent enthusiasm.”

Until her move to hospice in January, Mrs. Horvath had lived all her life in several of the apartments adjacent to the Consaul Street restaurant that her father, Tony Packo, founded the year she was born, 1932, and in the family house next door.

“She never had a thought to live anywhere else. She was totally committed to the restaurant, her Hungarian culture, and to [the] Birmingham [neighborhood],” said Mary Alice Powell, former Blade food editor and longtime friend.

Mrs. Packo was one of four children born to Mr. Packo and his wife, Rose, whose families had immigrated to East Toledo from Hungary around 1900. She was a Central Catholic High School graduate.

An early marriage, which produced her only child, Robin Horvath, ended in divorce. Mrs. Horvath never remarried.

“She was married to her work,” Ms. Powell said.

Her father had learned the restaurant business from his brother, John Packo, who owned a place on Consaul Street where Tony Packo's parking lot is today. Tony Packo opened his sandwich and ice cream shop at Consaul and Genesee streets.

Soon after, he created a sausage-on-a-roll sandwich with a secret meat sauce, and the company's famous Hungarian hot dog was born.

The business, in the present-day Consaul Tavern thrived, and Tony Packo's moved in 1936 to the current Birmingham site at Consaul and Front streets, where other Hungarian favorites such as cabbage rolls and chicken paprikas also were served.

Mrs. Horvath's life was prematurely altered at age 30 in 1962, when her father became seriously ill, and she took control of the family business. Mr. Packo died the following year at 55.

Under the direction of the personable Mrs. Horvath, who once described herself as “hard-working, hot-tempered, and fun-loving,” and her brother, Tony Packo, Jr., who joined the company in 1968 at age 20, Packo's sustained a remarkable period of growth beginning in the late 1960s.

“Over my years being a member of the family with her, I don't think there was ever a person dedicated to a family as much as her and to the beliefs we believed in as a company,” her brother said.

In 1967, Mrs. Horvath hired 27-year-old Ray Heitger and his Cakewalkin' Jass Band and Packo's began drawing huge weekend crowds.

Among those who ventured to the restaurant in 1968 was Maurice Dreicer, a globe-traveling gourmet who wrote syndicated newspaper columns and travel dining guides about award-winning food.

After savoring a Packo's hot dog, Mr. Dreicer awarded one of his certificates of merit to the restaurant. “I feel that anyone who serves something this good and unique deserves to be recognized,” he said.

Mrs. Horvath's savvy marketing skills brought more recognition to the restaurant in 1972 when she persuaded Burt Reynolds, in town for The Rainmaker at the Masonic Auditorium, to visit her restaurant. While there, Mr. Reynolds signed a hot dog bun, beginning a tradition that hundreds of personalities have continued.

Four years later, on the popular TV show M*A*S*H, Toledoan Jamie Farr, playing the role of Cpl. Max Klinger, mentioned the East Toledo hot dog joint he loved as a kid, and Packo's became world famous. Packo's was mentioned in five other M*A*S*H episodes, including the final show, further boosting the restaurant's fame.

“When you're in a studio, you don't realize what you just said goes around the world. I had no idea what impact it would make,” said Mr. Farr, who soon became a close friend of Mrs. Horvath and visited Packo's every time he came to Toledo. “She was always a delight to be with and so generous.”

In 1997, the restaurant received another boost when astronaut Dr. Donald Thomas requested Packo's hot dog sauce be included for his flight aboard the space shuttle Columbia.

The Packos moved into the packaged food business in 1980 after Mrs. Packo persuaded Bob Urbanowicz of Merco Foods to carry Packo's line of pickles. They were an instant success.

Soon the Tony Packo Food Co. was up to 12 products - a number of them created by Mrs. Horvath - including the famous hot dog sauce, sweet pickles, and hot peppers.

Packo's added restaurant branches, including a stand-alone in Sylvania and others inside some of The Andersons stores.

Last year, Packo's products were sold in 118 stores and retail chains in 22 states, and the company's four restaurants and food company had 110 employees and sales of $5 million.

Her brother, Tony, Jr., said: “We took a business that was very good and took it to another level because of her dedication.”

Last year, Ms. Horvath received the Women of Excellence award from the Business & Professional Women of Ohio.

For all her success, Mrs. Horvath had her share of troubles too. Within two months in 1996, she suffered heart problems and an ulcer - ailments that curtailed her heavy workload.

In July, she and her son, a Packo's vice president, sued her brother and his son, Tony III, who joined the company as a vice president in 2001, for libel, breach of duty, and trying to force her out of the business.

A week later, Tony, Jr., and Tony III countersued to dissolve the company. They claimed it was no longer practical to carry on the business because the owners - each family had 50 percent of the company - were at an impasse.

The families eventually settled their differences in October, agreeing to add an impartial third person to the company's board and to split off the food company into a separate subsidiary.

Mrs. Horvath described the ordeal as “painful and uncomfortable” and afterward apologized to customers and employees alike.

Tony, Jr., said the problem emerged because no formal succession plan had been put in place. “It was the kind of decisions that should have been made 40 years earlier. I don't blame myself, and I don't blame her. I'm sorry it happened. But now ... we have a whole new corporation. And I have my nephew and son to carry it on,” he said.

Soon after the dispute was settled, Mrs. Horvath was diagnosed with cancer.

Although she was mostly identified by her ties to the Packo businesses, Mrs. Horvath was active in community affairs. When former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner formed his Committee of 100 to develop a vision for Toledo's future, Ms. Horvath was high on his list.

“I don't think she ever turned down a request to help a cause. Nancy never said no,” Mr. Finkbeiner said.

She was a former president of the Northwestern Ohio Restaurant Association, a founder of the Birmingham Coalition, and a 14-year member of the Toledo-Lucas County Convention and Visitors Bureau board of trustees. Her memberships included the Toledo Opera Guild, the Toledo Museum of Art's president's council, Lucas County March of Dimes, Toledo Symphony Women's League, and Hungarian Club of Toledo.

Surviving are her son; Robin; brother, Tony Packo, Jr., and a granddaughter.

Visitation will be private. Services will be at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow in St. Stephen's Catholic Church. Arrangements are being handled by the Eggleston-Meinert Funeral Home, Kinsey Birmingham Chapel. The family requests tributes to the St. Stephen's School building fund or Hospice of Northwest Ohio.



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