For nearly 80 years, Tony Packo’s, the iconic family-owned restaurant chain known for spicy hot dogs and a link to the 1970s TV show M*A*S*H, dished up its tasty Hungarian-style food with nary a minor financial burp.
But a family squabble in 2011 put Packo’s in receivership, then led to court-ordered sale of the famed eatery to fast-food operator Bob Bennett. Barely a year after taking control, Mr. Bennett died unexpectedly in May, 2013.
Yet five years after Mr. Bennett’s death, his vision for making Packo’s bigger, better, and tastier than ever remains on track through the efforts of his widow, Emily Bennett, now chairman and president of her late husband’s Bennett Management Corp., and Jimmy Harmon, the CEO that Mr. Bennett had hand-picked to run his company and spice up Packo’s specifically.
Packo’s has opened three new restaurants in just under 10 months — replacements for three that were closed — and all have a fresh new look, a new logo, new drive-thru windows, new packaging for take-out orders, and a new feel.
The third new Packo’s, a full-service restaurant located in a former Boston Market at 5822 Alexis Rd. in Sylvania, opened this weekend and is replacing a Monroe Street site that had grown long in the tooth and offered no opportunity for a drive-thru.
It features a new sleek design with a drive-thru window, craft beers and wine, and a wait staff. But it retains several of Packo’s traditional touches: tiffany lamps and signed-and-framed hot dog buns, but also the same Hungarian-style menu loyal customers expect.
Haylee Bobak, right, takes orders and helps serve food during the grand opening of the newest Tony Packo's Restaurant.
“There’s lots of things we’re testing, if you will. First time we’ve done ‘em — but with the same food,” Mr. Harmon said Wednesday prior to a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Sylvania restaurant. “That’s the thing. Same food, same people,” he said.
Mrs. Bennett said that before her husband died, he told her how to proceed with Packo’s.
“Bob and I discussed his vision of what he wanted Packo’s to be in his absence. So I took those words very seriously and, with Jimmy’s help and the rest of top management’s help, we’ve been able to do just that,” she said while attending the ribbon-cutting.
“His vision was to bring the brand back to the status it enjoyed when it was back in the forefront of Toledo’s mind, to keep building the brand. It’s iconic. It’s famous. It is Toledo,” Mrs. Bennett said. “And he felt very strongly and passionately that it was my duty to bring it forward, to keep it going and build upon it.”
Packo’s recently won the 2018 Tourism Impact award from Destination Toledo, the area’s tourism and convention bureau, for having “a profound influence on the tourism industry in the greater Toledo region.”
But to reach that deserved status, it has had to overcome a number of challenges, including Mr. Bennett’s untimely death, a public identity crisis, the development of a new store model, the sudden and unplanned eviction from two locations, and the expedited search for new store sites to accommodate the new model.
Autographed buns and memorabilia adorn the walls inside the newest Tony Packo's Restaurant Wednesday, May 23, 2018, near the intersection of West Alexis Road and Monroe Street in Sylvania. This is the third store the company has opened in 10 months and will feature both a drive-through and full-service on nights and weekends.
“Our teams had massive change,” Mrs. Bennett said. “But everyone has stepped up to the plate. They have kept faith in Jimmy and I and they’re amazing professionals.”
However, Mr. Harmon thinks much of the credit for keeping Tony Packo’s on track should go Mrs. Bennett, who previously had been a first-grade teacher for 20 years.
“We would not be where we are without Emily Bennett,” Mr. Harmon said. “Having worked with Emily, she took this business by the horns. Several years ago we were sitting in boardrooms with presidents of banks in this town, and you’d have thought Emily had been doing that for 20 years.”
The first challenged the company faced was getting past its founder’s untimely death.
“We healed together. That first year was very tough on us, on all of us — the Packo’s side and the Burger King side. We lost Bob, and we lost someone from the Burger King side, [retired president and COO] David Chandler, and then we had a new CEO [Mr. Harmon],” Mrs. Bennett said.
She said it was always her husband’s plan to grow the Packo’s chain, which has five locations in metro Toledo. He wanted to add drive-thru windows, something he was among the first to do at Burger King.
Mr. Harmon said those at Bennett Management first had to understand Packo’s, then devise a development plan for a new drive-thru location on Secor Road in Toledo.
“We were very happy with that site, we got into developing that restaurant and then we got a surprise when Dan Anderson [of The Andersons Inc.] called me on a Sunday night in January,” Mr. Harmon recalled. “He said, ‘We’re closing.’ ”
Scott Radel, Vice President of Tony Packo's of Toledo, left, watches as Sylvania Mayor Craig Stough signs a bun during the grand opening of the newest Tony Packo's Restaurant in Sylvania.
The Anderson’s decision last year to close its Toledo and Maumee stores meant Packo’s was forced out of two profitable Packo’s Express sites inside those stores.
“Emily and I said, ‘What do we do next?’” Mr. Harmon said. “We had not had any plans to open a second restaurant or a third restaurant at that point.”
The CEO said they decided to mobilize. “And we had, maybe the next Monday, a letter of intent all ready on the property in Maumee that we ended up building on. Once that restaurant opened, we started working pretty hard on [the Sylvania] restaurant because we knew we had a success here and a track record,” he said.
The Andersons closings sped up Bennett’s development plans for Packo’s. But neither Mr. Harmon nor Mrs. Bennett expected to find that after 86 years in business, there are many people in Toledo who don’t know who or what Tony Packo’s is.
Research found that, despite long-time success at its original Front Street location on Toledo East Side and at the newer Packo’s at the Park downtown, confusion had developed over the company’s name and menu, especially among younger adults.
“You know the old Tony Packo’s logo with peppers? People that don’t know Packo’s think we have Mexican food. It’s one of the early-on things we learned,” Mr. Harmon said.
“When you see our logo now we have the ‘o’ underlined and the thing is, the vast majority of people outside of Toledo say POCK-o’s. Tony POCK-o’s. Which again, makes us sound like a Mexican restaurant,” the CEO said.
Mr. Harmon said he wanted it made clearer that Packo’s meant Hungarian-style food. But that created a second problem with new customers.
“Some people know what it is, but the vast majority of people say, ‘Well what is Hungarian food?’ So we wanted a broader appeal, which our menu already has with German potato salad,” he said.
The new logo adds “Eastern European Kitchen” after the Packo’s name.
Mr. Harmon said Eastern European could mean any dish from that region, and that would allow Packo’s to expand its menu, should it choose to do so. Already, the CEO said, there’s an idea for a breaded chicken sandwich done in a Hungarian style.
Bennett Management hired Richardson Design LLC of Cleveland to rebrand Tony Packo’s and reinvigorate its concept. But Mrs. Bennett also had a large role in designing the company’s next generation of stores.
“I think I’ve influenced the design and feel for the restaurants, combining the old with the new,” Mrs. Bennett said. “Bob didn’t have the luxury of time to do that, so we’ve just taken guidance from how I think Bob would have done it, what he would have enjoyed, what decisions he would have made.
“With Jimmy’s help and Richardson Design’s help, and help from everyone on the team, I think we’ve got a very comfortable model going forward,” Mrs. Bennett said.
After a whirlwind 10 months, it’s time to enjoy the three new restaurants, see what works and what doesn’t, and decide which options to take going forward, she said.
Mr. Harmon said next year should reveal what customers want and expect from Tony Packo’s. “Everything’s working right now. So we’re going to figure out what works the best and then, you know, maybe it depends,” he said.
Expansion is a possibility and many markets — Perrysburg, Cleveland, Columbus — look promising, Mr. Harmon said.
“But were we to go to another market, would we start with a restaurant like [Sylvania] or would we start with a fast casual [like Secor Road]? Those are the things we have to decide as we make plans to grow,” the CEO said. “But we’ve had plenty going on in the last year. Now it’s time to celebrate.”
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