Pete Turner Illegal Pete's Six metro locations (with more to come) illegalpetes.com
Pete Turner never expected to wind up on the Drudge Report. But that's where he landed last week -- while he was dealing with an eleven-week-old baby, fighting a cold, moving the original Illegal Pete's that he'd opened in Boulder in 1995, and preparing to launch his seventh location, in Fort Collins. "It's been an interesting week, to say the least," croaks Turner, who lost his voice along the way.
It was the Fort Collins location that cost him his voice -- and threatens the name of the restaurant there.
The fact that Turner was bringing an Illegal Pete's to Fort Collins had been common knowledge for months -- the company bought the former Goodwill building at 320 Walnut Street last December -- but it wasn't until a few weeks ago that Turner got an anonymous e-mail that said some people were organizing to protest the name because the term "illegal" is racist.
Over the past two decades, "a lot of people have asked me about the origin of the name, and I say it's a long story and laugh it off," Turner says. "I like to keep it a mystery." But the people asking about the origin of the name never told him that they thought it referred to "illegal" immigrants.
Then, in mid-October, Turner started getting more e-mails suggesting just that, "big time." Some were nasty, others respectful.
"The restaurant will be located in the same area that current Fort Collins residents remember often seeing signs saying 'No dogs or Mexicans.' It is under this legacy of American racist practices that the name Illegal Pete's becomes unacceptable," wrote Colorado State University assistant English professor Antero Garcia.
After receiving that letter and consulting with Joshua Trinidad, a Denver musician very familiar with Illegal Pete's who's also a CSU doctoral student and in a "unique position to see both sides," Turner says, he determined to meet with the group to talk about their concerns. "I care about this," he explains. "I'm not going to brush it off."
Twenty years ago, when Turner decided to open his own place, the "Pete's" part of the name was a no-brainer; it was his first name and also that of his father, an investor in the restaurant who had terminal cancer. The "Illegal" was intended to be "mysterious, counterculture more than anything," Turner recalls. "What I really wanted it to be was an invitation for further inquiry, to break down a barrier, create a little mystery, maybe even a little anxiety, but then create a relationship with great service and great food."
And he intended to explain all of that at the October 22 meeting in Fort Collins. He also pulled together handouts detailing the company's background and philosophy -- "this is what we believe in, this is who we are" -- to let critics know that Illegal Pete's works with the neighborhoods where it puts locations and is "inclusive," not racist. "What they thought flies directly against where we are as a company," he says.
He brought a few key members of his team, too, including Milton Guevara, who's been with the company for seventeen years, opened the South Broadway store; he was born in El Salvador. "I'm Hispanic, and I'm very proud to be," Guevara told the group. "People come to us because they love our food.... The name doesn't mean anything."
But it did to many people in the room; while the conversation stayed respectful, at times it got heated. And at the end of the meeting, several members of the group said they wanted to see a new name on the Fort Collins restaurant when it opens on November 13. "The interesting thing to me is we're three weeks from opening, and they basically want a response that day," Turner recalls.
An account of that meeting from the Fort Collins Coloradoan wound up on Drudge on October 23, under the headline "Burrito chain urged to drop 'illegal' from name." Turner is now studying the issue, talking to other people in Fort Collins, considering what to do. "I will continue the conversation," he says. "I think we're an addition in any community we go into."
Turner opened his first store in Denver in 2001, at 1530 16th Street, on the mall, and quickly earned extra points with the restaurant's emphasis on supporting live music as well as supplying big burritos. That emphasis only grew when he opened an Illegal Pete's at 270 South Broadway two years ago; the patio out front is a focal point on that increasingly hip strip.
Turner thinks the Fort Collins restaurant, located on the fringe of the downtown area, has similarities to the South Broadway outlet. "Fort Collins is stretching this way; it could be impetus for further growth and revitalization," he says. And although there's no room for the big Broadway patio, there will be a huge rooftop deck with a view of both the mountains and downtown Fort Collins. The building has a total of 9,000 square feet, and Illegal Pete's will only take up a little more than half; Turner is thinking of starting a music venue in the 4,000 square feet in back. He's already met with the neighboring Northside Aztlan Community Center and the Global Village Museum about collaborating on projects. "We get into a neighborhood and community, and we work with them," he says. "It's the right thing to do, it's the fun thing to do, and it's good business to support local organizations."
The Fort Collins store is far from the only thing on his plate.
Next month, Turner will close the original Illegal Pete's location, on the Hill in Boulder, and move around the corner to a larger space. The switch was both "bittersweet" and complicated. "It's not easy to grow in Boulder," he says, and he was lucky to be able to take over the liquor-license rights of the previous tenant.
A Littleton native, Turner went to school at the University of Colorado and took a chance on opening Illegal Pete's soon after he graduated. He was inspired by those big Mission burritos he'd tried when visiting San Francisco -- the same burritos that inspired Steve Ells to open Chipotle in Denver in 1993.
"I hoped it would be my career," he says now. "The food was critical, because it was exactly what I wanted to eat when I was in school there -- but it was more than that. It was the standard of service, after getting slices of pizza from people who didn't give a shit."
Illegal Pete's did, and the company soon grew to add not just restaurants, but side projects that support local bands and other worthwhile causes.
More stores are coming, too. Next year, Illegal Pete's will venture out of state for the first time, opening a restaurant right by the University of Arizona campus in Tucson. And in April, Turner will open another Denver location, this one in the former Mama's Cafe on East Colfax. (Will Pete's Kitchen across the street will have a problem with another Pete's, Illegal or not? So far, Turner says, that East Colfax neighbor has been nothing but welcoming.) And he's also looking at bumping up his minimum wage next year. That, too, is "smart business and the right thing to do," he says.
But right now, he has to figure out the right thing to do in Fort Collins. "I'm personally kind of hurt, because we do a lot," Turner says, adding that he's helped employees with citizenship issues. But he also knows that this issue is very personal for the people complaining about the Illegal Pete's name.
"I didn't realize that this would become a free-speech issue, either," he says. "It's an opportunity to learn."
This is an expanded version of the story originally published here on Friday, October 24.
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