Say Cheese! Memphis' Love Affair With Pancho's — and Cheese Dip. 

"Pancho Man" is the guy with the big mustache and sombrero on the cartons of Pancho's cheese dip. Tim Wallace, who also sports a mustache, is the other Pancho Man. He's president of Pancho's manufacturing plant and the man who keeps the Pancho's South Memphis cheese-dip operation running smoothly.

You might say Wallace lives and breathes Pancho's. "I can't go into a grocery store without turning the face of the Pancho Man out," he says. "I run the day-to-day operations of the whole company," Wallace said. "I'm the salesman. I'm the whole nine yards. You might say," he grins, "that I'm the big cheese."

Wallace began working for Pancho's in 1988, and was responsible for introducing the brand's white cheese dip and the chipotle cheese dip. He also scaled down the plant and helped create new machinery to make more dip — and make it faster.

Wallace also created the cheese dip's  "Best Dip on the Planet" slogan. "We actually have that trademarked. We were 'liquid gold' before Velveeta took it. We just never trademarked it."

click to enlarge Tim Wallace
  • Tim Wallace

Clemmie and Morris Berger, both deceased, opened the first Pancho's Mexican restaurant in 1956 in West Memphis. They also owned the legendary Plantation Inn club, also in West Memphis. The current West Memphis Pancho's stands on the site of the Plantation Inn.

Wallace says the company's origin story is a simple one: "The family took a trip to Mexico, and when they came back, they said, 'We're going to open a Mexican restaurant.'"

Brenda O'Brien, Morris Berger's daughter, says her father was also the creator of "Pancho Man." O'Brien says she was with him when he made the first drawing. "Daddy wanted to get a mascot for the restaurant. Daddy could draw really well."

Early on, Pancho's featured cheese dip with their chips on the menu. "Cheese dip is not a Mexican dish," Wallace says. "If you Google it, you're going to see some historians say it started in 1935 in Hot Springs, Arkansas. And then you're going to find just as many historians who say, 'No, it started in 1956 at Pancho's in West Memphis.'" Wallace says. Della Gonzales, whom the Bergers brought back with them from Mexico, was the cook who came up with the cheese dip.

Over the years, Pancho's restaurant franchises kept expanding over the Mid-South, and all of them served the cheese dip. Now, only two Pancho's restaurants remain: one in West Memphis and one on Summer Avenue at White Station in Memphis.

click to enlarge Julia Eason and containers stamped with “Pancho Man.”
  • Julia Eason and containers stamped with “Pancho Man.”

Pancho's began manufacturing its cheese dip in the late 1970s, Wallace says, adding that it used to come in a "little cardboard container."

These days, the dip, now packaged in plastic containers, is big business. "We've increased our business 20 percent each year for the last five years," Wallace says. "We're in 18 states now. We just went into Michigan. All of Michigan's Sam's Clubs. Fifteen years ago, a guy told me that we would never go past Forrest City, Arkansas. I just laughed. We're in every Walmart, every grocery store in the state of Arkansas. We're in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, part of Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia."

Wallace isn't planning on stopping at 15 states. "We want to be all over the place. And you know what we're going to do? We're going to do it right here in Memphis."

The Memphis plant still makes taco meat, beans, rice, and gravy for the two restaurants, but four days a week, it concentrates on one product — cheese dip. "We're a family-run business. We're a small business. And we're trying to keep it simple," Wallace says. "We're just trying to concentrate on what we do best."

So what makes Pancho's Cheese Dip so good? Wallace is glad you asked. "What makes our cheese dip so superior is that we just put cheese in it. We don't do fillers and additives and junk. I have people call me all the time: 'Hey, I got this additive that you can put in your cheese dip and you can add more water.'"

click to enlarge coverstory_cheesedip_51a4485.jpg

None of that for Wallace. No thickening agents, either. "We use a high-quality cheese. It's 'extra melt American process.' And I promise you, as long as I'm breathing air, we'll never change our recipe."

And that recipe, as you might guess, is a trade secret.

"If you pulled up 'Pancho's' on the Internet," Wallace says, "you'll see hundreds of people, thousands of people, say, 'I've got the recipe.' Trust me. They do not have the recipe. They can get it close, but they're always leaving out a couple of key ingredients."

Is there a secret ingredient? "Yes. There's a secret ingredient."

And, as you also might guess, it's going to remain a secret.

Seventeen years ago, Wallace came up with the white cheese dip. "It's just a white cheese versus a yellow cheese. It doesn't taste the same because it doesn't have tomatoes in it. I make it a little bit thicker."

Pancho's came out with a chipotle cheese dip a year and a half ago. "It's got just a little bit of a smoky flavor to it," says Wallace. "And it has that kick that says, 'Mmmm. Wait a minute. This is a little spicy.'"

Pancho's goes through a truckload of cheese every week, Wallace says. "An 18 wheeler."

Each week, 70,000 to 100,000 cups of dip are made — in 8-, 16-, and 32-ounce cups.

You might think this would take a massive factory with hundreds of employees, but you'd be wrong. "I've got 10 employees back there," Wallace says.

The company originally used five-pound blocks of cheese, which came six to a box. People had to take the blocks out of the box and other people had to grind it.  "I was thinking, 'Why don't we just get a 40-pound block — one block — open the box, cut it, grind it?"

A supplier developed a 45-pound block of cheese for Wallace. "It simplified the process, and it made the quality of the cheese better because it was bigger volume. The consistency didn't do anything but improve."

Wallace came up with other time-savers. "I started looking at a cheese-grinding machine, so we didn't have to grind it by hand. So, I got some big old machines over here that I stuff with 45-pound blocks. It grinds it in five seconds. We were probably doing 3,000 tubs a day before. We're doing 16,000 to 17,000 tubs a day now.

"All of our food is cooked in these pressurized kettles," Wallace says, pointing to a batch of white cheese dip. "We've got two steam agitators in there to mix and to process it. It's a steam jacketed kettle. It's a unique design."

Spices are added after the cheese melts. "When the blue lights comes on, that's letting them know that the cheese is ready."

The cheese then goes to a holding pot before it goes into a "heat exchange" machine that Wallace and Howard Jones, who works at the plant, created. The heat exchange cools the dip before it goes into the refill machine, so it won't splatter around the rim of the carton after the dip is poured into the containers.

"I have a new machine coming mid-March that'll do two cups at a time," Wallace says. "Two lanes!"

Kelly Robinson, a native Memphian who moved to Portland in 2016, is a die-hard Pancho's cheese dip fan. Whenever he visits his home town, he packs dip in his carry-on when he flies back to Portland. "I don't leave Tennessee without it," he says. "I usually take two or three. They freeze, so they can keep for a while."

A caterer, Robinson said he likes the dip because it's "a cold cheese dip." And, he says, "I've eaten it my entire life. It reminds me of my childhood."

And it's true, Memphians love Pancho's. Wallace likes to tell about the time the Food Channel did a story on their cheese dip. The producer and her team went to a Kroger store in Germantown to film. "The manager came in, and they said, 'What does Pancho's mean to Kroger?'" Wallace says. "He said, 'Are you kidding me? It's right behind milk.'" — Michael Donahue

click to enlarge coverstory_cheesedip_51a4411.jpg

The Flyer staff ranks six local dips.

Somehow, someway cheese dip has come to work its way into Memphians' imaginations with an almost barbecue-like intensity. Specifically, Pancho's Cheese Dip. A Twitter search reveals folks eating Pancho's for breakfast, fantasies involving a Pancho's bath, declarations of devotion wide and deep. Hi-Tone had a Pancho's fountain for New Year's Eve.

Arkansas lays claim as the birthplace of cheese dip (not to be mistaken for queso). As the story goes, it was invented by an Irish man in the 1930s. Nowadays, there's the World Cheese Dip Championship held each fall at the Clinton library in Little Rock. Interestingly enough, Pancho's also swears they invented cheese dip. (See accompanying story.)

Is Pancho's all that? We decided to see for ourselves. We dug deep on this one, ranking six local cheese dips: Pancho's Original Cheese Dip; Pancho's White Cheese Dip; Tom's Tiny Kitchen Chipotle Bacon; Tom's Tiny Kitchen No So Spicy Thai; Tom's Tiny Kitchen Classic White; and El Terrifico Tamale Co. White Cheese Dip. We judged the dips on taste/flavor, texture/consistency, aroma/color and appearance, and spice/seasoning. Service journalism at its finest, y'all. Ranked from favorite to least favorite:

1. Pancho's Original

No surprise here. Like a newborn can crawl up its mother's belly for the nipple, our crew instinctively recognized this classic much-loved dip. "I know this dip. My heart knows this dip," wrote one of our raters. "I think this is Pancho's, so it's the best," said another.

More: "Yeller/orange, almost a clockwork orange." "Perfect. Cheesy." "Ideal." "Straight-ahead what you'd expect from a good-ass Memphis cheese dip."

2. Tom's Tiny Kitchen Classic White

A new contender to the dip wars, Tom's Tiny Kitchen introduced three dips to the market last spring: Classic White, No So Spicy Thai, and Chipotle Bacon.

Classic White ranked second in our tasting, with its seasoning getting the most praise. "Actually tastes like something," said one ranker. "Yum!," went another. "Best to me," noted one of our crew.

3. Tom's Tiny Kitchen Chipotle Bacon

Most notable for its bacon flavor. "Spicy, smoky, like country ham. For a country boy, country ham = f*ckin' good," enthused a ranker. Another wrote the dip's prominent bacon flavor was a game-changer. "Odd at first, but tasty!" and "Gets on my chip nicely," said another. More: "Robust and tasty — best of the bunch."

4. Tom's Tiny Kitchen Not So Spicy Thai

Close on the heels of the number-three Chipotle Bacon, the Not So Spicy Thai got points for its texture and palate-pleasing spiciness. "Not too thick, not too thin," commented one ranker. "Like the hot seasoning," said another. One said the spice level was "right on." One said it was "model thin" but with a "nice tang."

5. El Terrifico Tamale Co. White Cheese Dip

This dip is used on Corky's barbecue nachos. It's a beast, with a viscous consistency like cake batter.

One wrote, "Total chip breaker." Though most noted the thickness, many didn't mind it.

6. Pancho's White Cheese Dip

Surprising last-place finish for this name brand (though voting was close). The issue was consistency and flavor, though the damning among all these dips amounted to faint praise. One summed it up, "I like a thick dip, but not with this flavor."


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