Who knows the secret to the "secret sauce?"
Descendants of restaurant founder Tony Packo are keeping tight-lipped about the heirloom that has seen their business through decades of gastronomic success. The others who know aren't at liberty to talk.
Spicing up the intrigue, the original handwritten recipe is said to remain locked in a safe deposit box, along with a can of hot dog sauce that flew aboard a U.S. space shuttle.
Robin Horvath, Packo's chief operating officer, holds the original scale that his grandparents used to measure spices. The concoction was mixed in the basement of the restaurant on Front Street.
"Our recipe has been a closely guarded family secret for many years," said Tony Packo III, the son of company president and co-owner Tony Packo, Jr. "It's something that many people have tried to imitate and have not been successful in doing so."
Knowledge and control of the classified ingredients might well become a valuable asset in the ongoing dispute between descendants of Tony Packo, Sr., that's playing out in court and clouded the future of the iconic Toledo restaurant chain.
Family members said that recipes floating around on the Internet or in books are not authentic.
The special taste of the Packo's Hungarian hot dogs and the sauce became known to millions of Americans when character Max Klinger (played by actor and Toledoan Jamie Farr) repeatedly longed for the food during the popular 1970s television series M*A*S*H.
The "sauce" in question is a specific blend of spices used to season the meat in Tony Packo's Inc.'s signature "Hungarian" hot dog sauce. The blend dates back nearly 80 years to when native East Toledoan Tony Packo, Sr., a Hungarian-American, opened his original restaurant at the corner of Consaul and Genesee streets in 1932.
Astronaut Donald Thomas had a hot dog with sauce during a 1997 space shuttle mission. An unopened can of sauce from the flight is in a safe deposit box.
Mr. Packo passed the secret to his daughter, Nancy Packo Horvath, six months before his death in 1963 while in the hospital. She alone knew the formula for two years until she shared it with her younger brother, Tony Packo, Jr. She has since died.
Next to know was Mrs. Horvath's son, Robin Horvath, who is now the firm's chief operating officer and its co-owner with Tony Packo, Jr.
The men are locked in a bitter legal dispute, and a Lucas County Common Pleas judge last week appointed a receiver to oversee the business. The receiver, Ottawa Hills resident Steve Skutch, was named after Fifth Third Bank filed a foreclosure action over missed payments on its $4 million loans, of which $2.7 million is owed.
For years, Mrs. Horvath mixed the classified concoction in the basement of the East Toledo restaurant at 1902 Front St., pouring from unmarked drums of spices and herbs before the mix was brought upstairs and added to the meat.
Mr. Horvath recalled last week how he was about 14 years old when his mother said it was his time to learn the closely guarded secret.
"They were going to Europe for like a week, so someone had to mix spices," Mr. Horvath said.
Before walking her son through the process, Mrs. Horvath swore him to secrecy. With a stern voice she told him, "This does not leave the family," and ordered, "Guard this with your life or it will be your life," Mr. Horvath remembered. "I recall being frightened to learn the recipe. It was like, 'Can I keep my mouth shut?'•" he recalled.
Another grandson of the restaurant firm's founder, Mr. Packo III, who is Mr. Horvath's cousin, confirmed last week that he too knows the secret to the spice blend.
His father, Tony Packo, Jr., could not be reached for comment.
Others who are privy are legally bound to sealed lips. Mr. Horvath said Tony Packo's has confidentiality agreements with a company that prepares the secret spice blend.
He wouldn't identify the company but said it isn't local.
Mr. Packo III, who is a manager of Tony Packo Food Co., a subsidiary that distributes the brand's canned products, also declined to share details.
"We have a confidentiality agreement with the people who blend the spices for us," he said without elaborating.
Two handwritten copies of the recipe exist in a safe deposit box at a bank, which Mr. Horvath would not identify. He said one copy was written by Tony Packo, Sr., and the other by his mother.
Also in the lock box is an unopened can of hot dog sauce that flew with the astronaut Donald
Thomas aboard the former space shuttle Columbia in 1997, Mr. Horvath said.
Mr. Horvath and Tony Packo III dismissed the authenticity of recipes claiming to be Tony Packo's hot dog sauce that have appeared in local cookbooks through the years.
The label on a can of the Packo dog sauce is rather vague about the spices in the list of ingredients: beef, water, chili spice (chili pepper, spices, salt, garlic), soy protein concentrate, sugar, salt, modified cornstarch, garlic, lecithin.
With the exception of the secret spice blend, all products served in the five local Tony Packo's restaurants are made in the company's central kitchen on Front Street, across from the East Toledo restaurant.
Fifth Third Bank said in a lawsuit filing that the restaurant chain's loans are secured by all of its business assets. Tony Packo III declined to comment on whether the secret recipe is part of those business assets, saying it is a private issue.
Fifth Third's attorney, Mark Ozimek, did not return calls seeking comment.
The recipe certainly would be considered part of the company's assets, said Jim Duggan, a Toledo patent attorney not involved in the lawsuit. The value of the recipe could be determined a number of ways, such as gauging the revenue it brings in for a year or perhaps a few years.
A brand's strength is part of what determines its value, as that can be a measure of potential future revenues, said Justin Wartell, director of brand strategy at Interbrand Design Forum in Dayton.
As Tony Packo's and its recipe have a storied history, the brand's value would not suffer if the family no longer owned it, Mr. Wartell said.
But intense family squabbling in court could lessen the value and put off customers, he said.
Mr. Horvath said it is his belief that whoever emerges with the restaurant chain should get custody of the secret recipe.
"That will follow the owners of the restaurant, whether the future owners are myself or Tony Jr.," he said.
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