‘I Am Illegal Pete:’ Owner Tells Fort Collins He Won’t Change Restaurant Name

Looks like that little story from Colorado about an “Illegal Pete’s” restaurant opening in Fort Collins has turned into a big deal for restaurant chain owner Pete Turner and the local group that asked him to change the name. Seriously, the story made Fox News today.

Illegal

Here’s what happened. This past Wednesday, Turner wrote one very long blog post pretty much saying basically everything about why he would not change the name of the restaurant. A few portions:

My name is Pete Turner. I’m the Founder and President of Illegal Pete’s. I am Illegal Pete. I started this business on The Hill in Boulder, Colorado soon after graduating from CU, opening the doors on August 15, 1995. We serve what is now called “Mission-Style” Mexican food, built upon the burrito shops in the Mission district in San Francisco. We also serve Southern California style Mexican fare such as Baja-Style fish tacos, rolled taquitos and quesadillas. I fell in love with this food while spending time in Southern California visiting family when I was younger, and visiting friends in the Bay Area during college. The atmosphere we create while serving food was equally important to me. As a student at CU, I always felt that when I was getting food on the Hill, restaurants thought they were doing their customers a favor by taking their money; to me their customer service and atmosphere was seriously lacking. I wanted to create a fun and energetic atmosphere with music playing, employees having fun, and I wanted to include our customers in the fun. This food didn’t exist on The Hill in Boulder when I went to college, and I thought that if we served it in a high energy, fun environment it would be a place that I would have eaten at multiple times a week.

I’d worked in restaurants growing up but had never managed one. I was nervous to say the least. That being said, I remember fondly the excitement and anxiety I felt stripping and sealing concrete floors, doing the brick work, painting the walls, building the wooden table tops, and experimenting for months and months in my parents’ kitchen with my recipes.

When it came to the name Illegal Pete’s, I settled on the name of a bar in a novel. The name resonated with me for the obvious reason that my name is Pete, but of equal importance, it was my father’s name. My father, who helped me secure the financing for the restaurant, was terminally ill with cancer, having battled stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma since 1989. He was never able to work in the restaurant, but he was my moral support during the months leading up to opening and the two years of operation up to his death in August 1997. Needless to say, he was a fighter, and I liked that he and I could share the ins and outs of this business.

The adjective “illegal” was an exciting part of the name for me for a number of reasons. The first reason was personal: my dad was a bit of a good-natured hell raiser when he was a younger man in that he always tried to keep the party going just a little bit longer; hearing these stories from his friends, it became innate in me to try and keep the party going a little longer too. Second, the name to me was unique and counter-cultural, which I appreciated as a younger man. Still do. It’s typically the counter-cultural places in our society that are the most accepting of individuals from all different walks of life.

Beyond that, Illegal Pete’s didn’t really imply anything to me. It could be a bar, a book store, restaurant, or a head shop – it could be anything really, and that was the point. The name didn’t pigeon-hole us into any obvious brand direction, which was very important to me. I’d always hoped that people would experience a great meal and a fun personal experience with our staff, and walk away with a personal connection to our culture.

Illegal Pete’s logo and brand history illustrates the idea that Illegal Pete’s branding is not static; that it has grown and continues to grow as we grow. Just as the word “illegal” has different definitions and meanings, so too does “Illegal Pete’s” have many different iterations in its branding.

Turner then proceeds to share the chain’s history as well as how well he treats his employees. He then closed with this:

In Illegal Pete’s 20 year history, I have grown a business that creates opportunity and connection, by celebrating all individuals, from the farmers we support, to the employees that we grow, the communities we do business in, and even more so, the typically underserved populations that we dedicate ourselves to providing opportunities for. As an English Major, I understand that words are powerful, and I hope that I’ve been able to shed some light on the inspiration behind the name of this company. I also hope that I’ve illustrated why we, a company with six locations and 20 years of rich history, can’t change our name. It is a very important part of our identity that we’ve built over the years, and it’s how our customers know us. It’s how I know myself. It’s just as much a part of our company as the bricks and the concrete floors and the queso that we make. The word “illegal” means many things, in this statement, I have outlined what it means to me. So, I will not change the name of our company. We welcome you, and all humans, to visit our restaurant; to get to know us, and to form your own opinion, and hopefully create a meaningful relationship with Illegal Pete’s and other humans while in an atmosphere that celebrates individuality and relaxed human connection.

The next day, the group that had asked Turned to consider a name change for the new Fort Collins location released it own statement and basically told Turner that he is missing the point:

Rather than responding to the group’s concerns, Turner chose to spend six pages enumerating the things he has done for the community and his track record as an employer, things that the group never called into question.

There is more here:

The group has stressed, and continues to stress, that regardless of the intention of Pete Turner’s decision to name the restaurant initially, the impact is painful and offensive.

The release also included a quote from an undocumented college student: “‘When I heard the name of the restaurant ‘Illegal Pete’s’ it felt like all the doors that had closed in my face were closed again. I recognize that this restaurant does not mean to offend, but derogatory language used openly in a public place opens the door for continued racism. Racism is not a thing of the past.'”

One local report added:

Hernan Cortes, a Colorado State ethnic studies instructor, said he and others were unhappy with Turner’s decision.

“We’re disappointed that he has decided to go through with keeping the name with the heightened level of interest by the community,” Cortes said.

Cortes voiced his concern that it was not really that long ago in Fort Collins history when signs that read “no dogs or Mexicans” were used.

“There’s no question of whether or not we’re going to drop the issue,” Cortes said. “We are hoping to come to a mutually beneficial agreement.”

Some say that Turner plans to expand his chain into Arizona. Good luck with that.

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