Chef News

Pete Turner on Illegal Pete's, Community, the Fort Collins Controversy and Pete's Kitchen

Page 2 of 2

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."

Illegal Pete's has certainly lived up to that reputation in Denver and Boulder. Keep reading for more from Pete Turner.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun