The original Tony Packo’s Café, made famous by Toledoan Jamie Farr as homesick Corporal Max Klinger on the comedy-drama series M*A*S*H, is undoubtedly one of our area’s most remarkable spaces. But it’s not just this well-loved restaurant’s historical building that makes it unique—the surrounding neighborhood oozes culture and family stories too, and that genuinely sets this space apart from the rest of Toledo.
The corner of Front and Consaul first left its mark on local history back in 1838 when Buckeye Brewing Company, Toledo’s second-oldest business, began brewing its beer on this corner just one year after Toledo was formally founded. Buckeye moved across the river to Michigan Street in 1886. This building, occupied by Packo’s for the last eight decades, was erected here in 1903 to serve as R.I. Munding’s Tin Shop.
While county records document this neighborhood as Robison’s Riverside Addition, most Toledoans know that Packo’s anchors Birmingham, the area along Front Street that boasted so many mills and foundries at the turn of the 20th century that working-class Hungarians arriving from Europe referred to it as Birmingham, in deference to Birmingham, England, an industrial powerhouse situated in West-Central England.
The 1890s saw many companies open operations in Toledo’s Birmingham neighborhood, including National Malleable, United States Malleable, Maumee Malleable Castings, NABISCO, a couple of coal yards, a cement-block manufacturer, and the Rail Light Company (known today as Toledo Edison).
The ethnic heritage of East Toledo originated with French-Canadian families early on, and later a prominent French community settled in the East Broadway and Greenwood area. In addition, many immigrants came from the Alsace-Lorraine area, the region between Germany and France. When National Malleable Castings Company of Cleveland opened its plant at Front Street near Consaul in 1892, it transferred approximately 200 Hungarian workers from its home foundry. As this area began to grow, word went back to Eastern Europe, and the number of Hungarians in Toledo increased rapidly. Once here, these workers sent money home to have more family members arrive to work in the mills, furnaces, and foundries of East Toledo. The lure of good-paying jobs and humble homes also brought Italian, Slovak, Czech, German, Polish, Bulgarian, Greek, Hispanic, and African American families to the east side of the Maumee. This area was Toledo’s melting pot.
Offspring of Hungarian immigrants, 24-year-old Tony Packo and his wife Rose, both natives of Toledo, borrowed $100 from Joe's grandmother to open a small sandwich and ice cream shop at the corner of Consaul and Genesee in 1932. Tony learned the restaurant business while working for his older brother, John, who owned a cafe located on Consaul, just down from Front Street. Tony knew he had to offer something special on his menu to draw a crowd during the blues of the Great Depression, so he added his spicy chili sauce to provide a little punch to the taste of his hotdog. Known as a "Depression sandwiches" and a food of working class people in the early 30s, Tony knew his hearty helping of toppings could turn his hotdog into a meal. He also gained an economic edge on the local saloons and restaurants by using a Hungarian Kolbász sausage that was large enough to offer half sausages (split down the middle) and still ask the typical nickel that other bistros charged for a full-sized wiener. At the time, he had no idea that he had invented the Hungarian hot dog!
By 1936, Tony and Rose earned enough to rent this classic wedge-shaped building located at 1902 Front Street. Early on, this structure was home to the R.I. Munding Sheet Metal and Tin Shop, and then to various other businesses, including the B&B Restaurant. The Packo's bought the building in 1938. Over the years, Tony and Rose expanded their operation by linking their building to the adjacent J. Bertok Ironworks and the Bertok family residence, eventually covering the connected buildings with matching siding in 1946 and adding a dance floor. As Rose and Tony grew the business, they raised a family—living above the café. Tony Packo, Jr. fondly recalls hearing the bands playing below their residence on Friday and Saturday nights. The hoard of sports trophies still stored in a bedroom above the restaurant today attests to how the Packo family went out of their way to support the local community.
In 1972, Tony and Rose’s daughter, Nancy Packo Horvath, sent Burt Reynolds a note inviting him to stop by Packo’s while he was in town performing summer stock theatre. Reynolds accepted her offer and glibly launched a treasured tradition by signing a hot dog bun during his visit. As fame from Farr’s mentioning of Packo’s on M*A*S*H grew, more celebrities began to stop by while visiting the Glass City. Today, Packo restaurants feature framed buns signed by U.S. Presidents, movie stars, astronauts, athletes, and rock and roll superstars.
In the 1980s, Nancy Packo Horvath led the effort to renovate much of this property. Unfortunately, attempts to develop a “Hungarian Village” in the immediate neighborhood surrounding the building in 2005 were unsuccessful, but Packo’s is still headquarters for all things Hungarian on the East Side. Just across the street, the commissary handles food prep for all Packo locations throughout the Toledo area, cooking thousands of pounds of sausage each week.