MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Did you know cheese dip is considered an important part of Arkansas food culture? Some even claim it first showed up at an Arkansas restaurant in the 1930′s, but historians cannot agree whether that eatery was in Little Rock or Hot Springs, Arkansas.
There’s even a World Cheese Dip Championship that’s been held almost every year in Little Rock since 2010. But, there are still others, who say the cheese dip that was born in West Memphis is the true king of cheese dips and it’s also the subject of this week’s 5 Star Story.
We recently ran into three Rhodes College students who were on a spring break mission while on their way to their hometown of Little Rock: the Arkansas Cheese Dip Trail. They were dining on Pancho’s Cheese Dip and chips at 3600 East Broadway in West Memphis, Arkansas when we met them.
According to spring breakers Sarah Jackson and Adeline Harton, they found information about the trail online.
“There’s like maybe 20 stops and this is our first stop,” they exclaimed.
Not too surprising.
“With the cheese, like, it’s famous. That’s what we(re) known for -- our famous cheese dip. I mean everybody calls about it. Everybody asks can we ship it to them,” said restaurant manager Nicole Foster.
Pancho’s was the brainchild of Morris Berger who surprised his son with a high school graduation trip to Mexico in the 1950′s. During their visit, their tastebuds were so tantalized by the food, Berger decided to bring the flavors home with him to West Memphis, Arkansas.
He opened his first Pancho’s restaurant in 1956 and even painted the original Pancho’s caricature, himself.
The restaurant had packed dirt floors and a live tree that was the centerpiece. But, nine months after it opened, the restaurant was destroyed by an 18-wheeler that ran through it late one night after closing.
Rather than throwing in the towel, the family tore down an old nightclub they owned called the Plantation Inn which, according to Berger’s daughter, was once the place to be when it came to live music from Memphis artists.
“I met every single person who played there. Willie Mitchell, Floyd Newman -- they all just were wonderful,” even Isaac Hayes, reminisced Brenda O’Brien, who also lived above the inn with her family while growing up.
Soon after the new restaurant opened in the shadow of the Plantation Inn, the Berger family, encouraged by the popularity of the West Memphis location, expanded their Pancho’s empire with more than two dozen restaurants throughout Memphis.
But, about 20 years ago, the family closed down all of its restaurants except the one in West Memphis and another at 717 White Station in Memphis. They found more growth potential in its products like the cheese dip, salsa and dressing, the magic of which now happens at a little factory on Winchester in Memphis near the airport, where it’s shipped out to more than 1,200 stores like Kroger and Walmart, to name two, worldwide.
You can even get it sent directly to your doorstep by ordering online at: https://panchosdip.com/.
“You can pretty much buy it in every store in the state of Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, " boasted Pancho’s President Tim Wallace. “This is new to everyone. We actually loaded cheese dip on a train last week and it’s on its way to the West Coast now, to Sam’s Clubs all the way in California, Nevada, Arizona -- two of them in Hawaii.”
As Pancho’s popularity grows across the country, the mascots and logos have undergone some changes throughout the years, too, at least 20 according to Wallace. Some product names have changed, too.
“Cheese dip is not called cheese dip in certain parts of the country, so we wanted to switch it over to queso, " Wallace explained.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is that the original cheese dip recipe which Wallace claimed has been the same since 1956.
“We will never cut, change anything with our recipe,” he promised.
Plant manager Darius Anderson, who took over the job from his father, upped the ante.
“Every ingredient in our cheese dip is all-natural,” he said. “It’s all-natural we don’t cheat our customers. I take pride in knowing that we don’t cheat the people because my family eats it and there a lot of other families that eat it.”
Maybe family is what makes the Pancho’s products so good.
O’Brien’s two sons run the company now, the third generation of the family to do so. It’s certainly loving that’s kept customers like Leon Alexandar from Mountain Home, Arkansas coming back for decades. We ran into him at the West Memphis location during lunch.
“We have been treating ourselves to coming to Pancho’s since we were back in high school back in 1959 and probably earlier. They are doing the same thing which is absolutely remarkable and it was good then and it still good now, " said Alexandar.
As for our spring breakers on that Arkansas Cheese Dip Trail, Pancho’s might be the only stop they need to make.
“I think it’s gonna rank high up there ‘cuz a lot of the places are in Little Rock, that are on the list. So I’ve had a lot of them before. So I think this one is pretty high, yeah,” they report.
Happy Cheese Trails!!