PUEBLO • This month included a momentous occasion at Pass Key Restaurant.
“Something of a historic moment,” said Luke Fleckenstein, representing the third generation of the family-run eatery. “We’re getting ready to upgrade our point of sales system.”
At the counter was fancy machinery that seemed out of place at this old-school establishment. Previously, “this was it,” said Mary Jo Pagano, Pass Key’s matriarch, pointing to a server’s notepad. That’s been it for nearly 70 years.
Still, the family has kept an approximation of sales of their locally famous sandwich, the Pass Key Special. “The Best Italian Sausage Sandwich in the World,” reads the back of Fleckenstein’s shirt.
Every month an estimated 20,000 hot ones come out of Pass Key’s two locations, the main spot along U.S. 50 and, as of 2016, the new location along Northern Avenue, occupying a former McDonald’s.
To an outsider, Pass Key may seem like another fast-food joint, with a menu also including burgers, hot dogs, chicken strips and other fried staples. And indeed, you won’t wait long for your goodies.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find a fast-food joint that means this much to its community. And, the family here promises, you won’t find something like the Pass Key Special elsewhere — both in regards to its taste and its story.
“It’s amazing, it truly is,” Pagano said, sitting with her three grown daughters and grandson Fleckenstein. “We can’t deny we’ve been blessed. It’s just unbelievable that a sandwich has kept us going for 68 years.”
Pagano’s husband, John, in 1952 in this then-proud steel city acquired a restaurant that was previously purveyed by a man named Pasquale. “Pass Key” was a play on his name. But later Pass Key became synonymous with a sandwich, initially composed of sausage links.
Alongside his brother, Frank, John Pagano invented a square sausage design. A local butcher provided the meat, and a local baker provided the mini loaf perfect for housing the spiced square along with lettuce and mustard. Simple.
And simple it has remained, served steaming in a basket of fries and a red and green cherry pepper. The spice is the secret, the family says. But the magic also has to do with the meat and bread still coming from their original, local shops — shops continued, like Pass Key, by family generations.
“John and I always told everybody, ‘As long as you stay with what you know and keep honest and be consistent with what you serve, you will be OK,” Pagano said.
John is pictured on the wall, in a white collared shirt from back when Pass Key had car hops. Back when the little restaurant — able to host maybe a dozen people inside, Pagano recalled — was on Abriendo Avenue, which was still dirt.
John died 15 years ago. He lived long enough to see the 1989 move to U.S. 50 in a building big enough for a salad bar. A son was essential to the business, until he suddenly, tragically died.
The three Pagano girls stepped up, as they always had since they were toddlers, whether it was peeling potatoes, picking peppers, washing dishes or bussing tables.
“We’re really into tradition, and we’re proud of that tradition,” said one, Kathy.
So the Pass Key Special has lived on. It’s as much a Pueblo tradition as ball games at Stauter Field or fishing at Runyon Lake. “To many Puebloans,” a local reporter once wrote, “the mention (of Pass Key) creates a craving that simply must be satisfied.”
It was that way for Fleckenstein when he came to town for summers as a child. He grew up in California, but his family’s sandwich “definitely sparked a passion to be part of something special,” he said.
He came home to open the Northern Avenue Pass Key, to run it alongside his mom, Julie Pagano. Fleckenstein is a new father, welcoming perhaps the fourth generation to one day lend a hand at the restaurant.
And perhaps, Fleckenstein hinted, that will be at Pass Keys up Interstate 25, in Colorado Springs and Denver.
But an expansion would only come if it remained possible to abide by the family credo: “staying true to ourselves,” Fleckenstein said.
On the menu
The Pass Key Special runs $6.25. With cheese — American, Swiss or provolone — that’s $7.75. The Super Pass Key Special ($9.75) is built for the cheese lover, with all three of those melted on. Double the sausage for $2.99 and/or add green chile strips for $1.
Find a corn dog and hot dog (each $4) on the other side of the menu, along with chicken sandwiches ($6.75 for grilled or fried) and burgers such as the Green Chile Slopper ($9), a quarter-pounder smothered in the regional specialty.
The Pagano family takes pride in its pasta, for more than 15 years serving spaghetti and meatballs ($8.75) as Grandma Lil made it. The meatball sub ($7) is another option.
Salads, including Italian and club, go for $8.50. Cold or grilled turkey and Italian sandwiches ($7.75) also on the lighter side.
“Munchies” ($5.99) include shredded potatoes with cheddar and jalapenos; crispy green beans fried in an onion batter; breaded ravioli and mushrooms; onion rings and mozzarella sticks.