(UPDATE – PASS KEY IS NOW TAKEOUT ONLY DUE TO COVID-19) Story by Jenny Paulson – Pass Key Restaurants have a rich and lengthy history in Pueblo, and are still locally owned and operated by the Pagano family that boasts that their Italian sausage sandwich not only the best locally, but in the entire world.
This black and white photo of the original Pass Key Restaurant was posted on Facebook by Jim Simmons, the admin of the popular group Pueblo, Colorado,…Are You from there, Back in the “DAY?” Locals estimate the date of the photograph is abut 1957, based on the 1956 Pontiac and 1957 Oldsmobile cars in front of the old restaurant, that was then located on Abriendo where the road curves by the highway.
While Pass Key isn’t located at this building anymore, they have a popular location just up the street on Abriendo and three other locations, to total four throughout Pueblo, with one in Pueblo West. The original restaurant had a juke box, pin ball machine and, like other old time restaurants they had curb side service with car hops. Their signature dish was the the Pass Key Special. Back then they’d sell beer, often by Walters, in bottles with meals that customers could enjoy while hanging out. Seating at the first Pass Key was available inside for only a few customers.
A Pass Key Special was a favorite for those finishing ball at nearby Stauter Field, to eat while fishing at Runyon lake, or taken to the Bell Games. According to the Pagano’s, “These activities are some of the things that Puebloans have made traditional over the years and in turn have made the city one of the most enjoyable communities to live in the entire U.S.A.
“Pass Key’s original restaurant was such a hit that it’s name became iconic and eating there remains synonymous with Pueblo’s rich traditions. Stopping to grab a Pass Key Special for a meal has become so natural for Puebloans that it is one of the things they miss most when they move or leave the city for any extended period of time.
The restaurant’s boasting of having the best Italian sandwich was picked up on by Kathi Lee and Koda of the Today show, who are quoted saying they heard we have the number one Italian Sausage Sandwich in the country right here in Pueblo (link to video at the Pass key website – http://www.passkeypw.com/p/specials.html). And there, the Pagano family says they’ve now served over 10 million.
Those who frequent Pass Key today still rave about the Pass Key Special, but also their homemade pasta and meatballs, huge salad bar, variety of sandwiches, homemade soup, green chile, french fries, onion rings, their beer and more.
The family now serves their food seasonally and at events from their Pass Key Food Truck, which the Westword named as one of the top mobile kitchens.
The Denver weekly reported, “you do not want to pass up one of the first vendors you see as you enter the fairgrounds: Pass Key on the Go. For more than fifty years, the Pagano family has been serving classic red-sauce Italian fare at the Pass Key 50 West Restaurant in Pueblo, and for almost as long, family members have been bringing their mobile kitchen to the fair, where they sell thousands of Pass Key Specials.
And special this sandwich is: A big patty of spicy, homemade Italian sausage lands on a mini-loaf of Italian bread, grilled on the flat top to a golden brown, then is topped with lettuce, mustard and mild peppers (adding cheese makes the sandwich a Super, and also glues the ingredients together nicely). At the fair, the Pass Key Special comes wrapped in paper — with a heaping side of down-home ambience. But if you want that.”
Here’s the history of Pass Key direct from the source: In 1952, John and Frank purchased the Pass Key Drive-In from their Uncle Sam and Aunt Teresa Pagano. “Having very little knowledge of the drive-in business, we were now businessmen learning from the ground up — the hard way.” according to John. “We had to do the ‘car-hopping’, waiting on tables the clean up, and cooking all by ourselves with a lot of help from our mother, Helen Pagano. But business began to grow and more help was needed.
“The boys hired their first employee, a “car-hop”, and started the first generation of people who have worked at Pass Key’s. some of the employees who have worked at the restaurant have children that followed in the foot steps by becoming cooks or waitresses.The story of Pass Key’s is a family affair. John and Frank’s families were responsible for the hard work it took Pass Key’s to become successful. Along with the assistance given to them by their parents, the owners’ wives and children also became involved with the business. All of the children of both families started by peeling potatoes, waiting on tables and washing dishes.
The original restaurant was in the 600 block of east Abriendo Avenue where the freeway meets Abriendo. It started as a drive-in restaurant with “car hops” who took and carried orders back and forth to automobiles in the parking lot. The lot held approximately fifteen cars comfortably. Then, in 1969, the new restaurant opened at 518 W. Abriendo Avenue, a block north of the original restaurant. The new one was designed by the owners with a larger indoor seating area and the “car-hop” service was eliminated.
The menu was expanded in hopes that business would not drop. Business didn’t drop, in fact it increased and customers had no complaints about the “new” concept.Expansion continued and in June of 1989, John’s family opened another Pass Key Restaurant on Highway 50 West. With more room, the new restaurant now provides more seating space, parking space and enough room for a salad bar. Again the menu has been expanded slightly but the Pass Key Specials are the main food items.
Families visiting their relatives will stop at the restaurant first and then call their family – “We just got into town. We’re at Pass Key’s eating, we’ll be by in a while.”
Pass Key Restaurants are now located at 518 E Abriendo Avenue, 1901 W US-50, and 3416 W Northern Avenue in Pueblo and at 82 S Radnor Drive in Pueblo West.
Here’s some memories shared about them at the originating Facebook post where the the black and white picture, posted here, started the conversation: Bill Appuglise: “Spent a lotta hours in that Pass Key as a kid. Ate sausage sandwiches, played pinball machines and they had the coldest Pepsi in bottles in town. Frank and John always treated us kids well and never tried to make us leave regardless of how long we stayed. Loved it!”
Katrina Small: “My father met my mother at Pass Key. She was 17 and he was there with his buddies. She was the waitress doing curb service. They got together and the rest was history. My dad stayed friends with the Pagano‘s through all the years. Mary Lou Pagano ended up marrying my stepmother‘s brother so she’s family through marriage. When I was three or four years old and we were at Pass Key, inside, I remember people would give me a nickel to put in the jukebox and I could choose anything I wanted, And they would put me up on a table and let me dance!”
Tony Godec: “The Pass Key Special was 55 cents, if you ate in, fries were included. If take out, you got chips. Had my first legal beer there at 18. They were open till 1 a.m. waited till midnight Friday to order a special. Remember, no meat on Friday for Catholics.”
Bob Cumming: “Paganos used to bring samples across Abriendo to the field. 60’s bantam league football. Then we went to have a Pass Key after our games.”
Deborah Rochester: “Eating there since I was fifteen so have had a lot of good food there that’s about 55years!” Originating post of black and white photo provided by Jim Simmons, two other photos courtesy Pass Key – https://www.facebook.com/groups/277967948880712/permalink/2581505375193613/
Story compiled by Jenny Paulson