Demetri Panagopoulos 001

Demetri Panagopoulos, who died last Saturday, is pictured in an archival photo along with a sign advertising his $10 sandwich offer, and “free” parking for stadium events.

For those who remember the early Wild West days of professional football in Foxboro and the cavalcade of colorful characters associated with it, there was irony aplenty in Tuesday night’s decision by the board of selectmen to tweak the town’s commercial parking regulations.

However, it was less the substance of these modifications, through which the town manages Route 1 business and property owners who park cars during stadium events, than the timing — coming the night before legendary restaurateur Demetri Panagopoulos was laid to rest.

A self-made businessman who teamed with his brother — first in the upscale Red Snapper restaurant (now Ambrosia Weddings & Events), and later in a sprawling web of Route 1 business and real estate holdings — Panagopoulos delighted in butting heads with town officials and pushing the envelope whenever possible. Those qualities were apparent back in the 1980s and ‘90s, when Panagopoulos hatched one of the most outrageous schemes in the long history of professional sports entertainment in Foxboro.

First, a little background. Among its many deficiencies (like, say, adequate water pressure), Schaefer Stadium opened in 1970 as a bare-bones facility with insufficient parking to serve capacity crowds – a major difference from today. That wasn’t necessarily a problem, as a patchwork of off-site parking options swiftly emerged which included both privately-owned “satellite lots” springing up along Route 1 and residential backyards dotting adjacent neighborhoods. Everyone, it seemed, wanted in on what was (and remains) essentially a cash business, beyond the reach of the pesky IRS.

In time, the town took steps to regulate these practices, requiring on-site trash and toilet facilities for commercial lot owners, capping the number of cars allowed in residential yards and eventually mandating sidewalk access in the name of public safety. But just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it was a lengthy and imperfect process with plenty of hiccups along the way.

The sidewalk issue addressed on Tuesday night by the board of selectmen was particularly problematic for Panagopoulos. Prior to the infrastructure improvements that accompanied construction of Gillette Stadium, sidewalk access on Route 1 was limited — and certainly didn’t reach beyond North Street to the Red Snapper (by that time operating as Big Smoky Valley Steakhouse). As a result, town officials refused Panagopoulos a license to park for stadium events, setting the stage for another great chapter in stadium lore.

Despite the town’s best efforts to monitor satellite lots, the temptation to skirt the rules was irresistible, especially when it came to overparking — that is, squeezing in cars beyond a lot’s licensed capacity. It was all too easy for attendants working on any given Sunday to park a few dozen extra cars and pocket the cash themselves.

But those sorts of activities, while widely suspected, were virtually impossible to track. Not so with Panagopoulos, whose own clandestine efforts to get a piece of the parking action always seemed a lightning rod for exasperated town inspectors. Finally, the restaurant owner had enough. Never lacking in audacity, he circumvented the sidewalk provision by simply converting Patriots fans to restaurant patrons and charging them $10 for a cellophane-wrapped ham sandwich — then allowing them to park all day for “free” while attending the football game.

This was the last straw for town officials, who ordered police to shut down the ham-handed scheme. As then-police chief Edward O’Leary recalled on Tuesday night, the contraband sandwiches seized as evidence were preserved in deep-freeze lest they were needed for a future legal challenge.

Much has changed since then. Most of the huge satellite lots closest to the stadium complex have been sold and consolidated into the Kraft Group holdings. And while event parking can still be a touchy subject on occasion, the Wild West atmosphere that characterized those pre-Gillette Stadium years is largely a relic from a time when there was as much entertainment off the field as on it.

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