Every customer, that is, except me, since I’m a new face in this Hilltop institution. Spying an opportunity, Pete starts working on me immediately, offering me coffee and looking genuinely surprised when I turn down the honey that he thinks I should add to it. When we sit down to chat later, he slips me a perfect nectarine and a just-right banana, while Ted cuts samples of feta to illustrate the difference between Greek- and Bulgarian-made cheese. And I begin plotting a dinner party, to be supplied completely by finds in this market.
All this is why, nearly forty years into its tenure at the corner of Cedar Avenue and Holly Street, and long after chain grocery stores supplanted neighborhood markets across the city, Pete’s continues to be a mainstay for regulars, while also attracting new customers who soon become regulars. “Put the honey, you get the bees,” Pete says, with a wink. “They come back.”
Pete worked his way up, eventually commanding two crews in booming southeast Denver. But after a few years, he wanted to do something a little less physically taxing. He regularly passed what was then a small fruit and vegetable market called Bob’s, and one day he noticed that Bob was moving to Leetsdale Drive. So he called the building’s owner and took over the lease. “Mr. Bob said, ‘I give him six months to be in business,’” Pete remembers. “I’ve been here for 39 years. I came up from zero.”
From the beginning, what was quickly rebranded Pete’s focused on local, high-quality fresh produce — an affinity Pete had picked up while living with a farmer in Greece. Ted remembers daily trips out to Brighton with his brother John, when his father would pick up lettuce and zucchini and whatever else was in season.
But Pete’s had another group of loyal customers, many of them based in Hilltop: the Jewish community. “When Passover came, everything revolved around it: fresh horseradish, eggs, everything our neighbors needed to stock up,” says Ted. Serving orthodox Jewish neighbors inspired the family to open a kosher pizzeria, which initially seemed an odd choice. Ted remembers that “they’d come in and say, ‘How does a Greek make Italian food and sell it to Jewish people?’”
In the course of running his business, Pete discovered an interest in flowers, now his favorite part of the job. “He started off with two little carts, geraniums and Italian basil, and he threw them away every year,” remembers Ted. “One year he bought a little more, and then he bought a little tent outside, and he had a dozen carts or so, and it grew into what it is now,” a sizable operation that supplies plants to Cherry Creek North landlords, the City of Denver and neighborhood gardeners.
Eventually, John and Ted officially joined the family business. “One month turned into six, and six months turned into six years,” says Ted. “I liked it. It was fun.” While Ted settled into running the original market with his father, John ran the spinoffs: He opened the Mythos food truck in the early days of the food-truck boom and continues to vend pita souvlaki at Civic Center Eats every summer, and he ran the pizzeria until a nearby competitor bought that business.
In 2014, John spearheaded the purchase of Spinelli’s Market, extending the family business into the Park Hill neighborhood. “Jerry Spinelli was selling the business for a year or two,” says Ted. “My brother came up to me and said, ‘Let’s go talk to Jerry, let’s go sit down.’ We sat down a couple times. There were a few people who were interested, but they wanted to change it. Jerry and Mary Ellen had been there for 22 years when we bought it. We did the walk-through and told him it reminded us so much of our dad’s place. Jerry said, ‘Shit, it should — I stole every idea from him.’”
It’s not like a clothing store,” says Ted. “If you’re not open, the shopper will just go to the next guy. If you need it now, you want to get it now. Do that a couple of times, and you’ll never see that customer again. We try to add as much convenience as possible.” And regulars, he notes, aren’t shy about tapping on the window after closing time. They know they’ll be let in.
To add another draw, the family just opened a liquor store next to the Hilltop market. In keeping with Pete’s Fruits & Vegetables, it’s particularly robust in Greek wines and spirits as well as locally made beer and booze.
But with rising housing costs, it’s getting harder and harder to find staff, who’ve traditionally lived within walking distance of the shops. That’s the largest barrier to further expansion, says Ted: “Our biggest hurdle now is just finding the right employees.” But at least there’s no shortage of family members who could be interested in the business: John married the daughter of the owners of La Fogata, a popular Mexican restaurant, and they have three daughters. “They’re small now, though, so we’ll see when they grow up,” says Ted.
And in the meantime, there’s always Pete. “The key to the whole thing is Pete,” says his son. “He’s still here seven days a week. You need five people to replace what he does. It’s proof that if you love what you do, you’ll be successful. For him, it’s not work: He comes in, sees customers, sees his friends who are the wholesalers, sees me and my brother. This is not work, it’s just life.”
“The neighborhood loves us, and we love the neighborhood,” concludes Pete. “It’s nice to be here for so many years.”
Pete's Fruits & Vegetables opens at 7 a.m. It's located at 5606 East Cedar Avenue in Denver; call 303-393-6247 for more information.