Meet Pete Turner, the founder of Illegal Pete’s.
—Photograph by Morgan Rachel Levy
In 2001, three burrito joints already lined the blocks near the now-defunct Market Street Station when Pete Turner decided to add a fourth: Illegal Pete’s. The move was a good one. Today Turner owns seven Illegal Pete’s along the Front Range (the newest spot opens this month in Fort Collins), and he’s looking to expand into Arizona next year. But Illegal Pete’s isn’t all rice and beans. The Colorado chain has spawned a slew of side projects, including an independent record label, a program that feeds touring bands traveling through Colorado, and the High Plains Comedy Festival, back for its second year from August 22 to 23. We caught up with Turner to talk music, burritos, and growing up punk in Denver.
Name: Pete Turner
Occupation: Owner and founder, Illegal Pete’s
Favorite Spots in Denver: Twist & Shout, Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret, Gozo, Z Cuisine, New Saigon, Hi-Dive
You were born and raised in Denver. What’s kept you here?
My business. When I was in high school, I was a punk; we would come downtown and party—climb fire escapes into these buildings that were mostly vacant. It was a ghost town, a playground for punk kids. It’s vibrant as hell now. I think there’s good vision and leadership. It’s phenomenal to see the growth. That keeps me here—and also having the ability to contribute to some of that growth is great.
Were there any signs in your childhood that you would someday be an entrepreneur?
I was the youngest of four, but I used to cook all the time when I was a kid. My mom called me Chef Pierre when I was tiny. I think I was pretty independent, too, so I was always doing my own thing.
You’ve started a record label, a comedy festival, and a program to feed traveling musicians. Did you always intend to have an entertainment component of the company?
We’re all very passionate about music, arts, and culture. It’s what we believe in, and we want to support our community. The idea with the label, the Greater Than Collective, was to work with other Denver producers, designers, artists, and bands. We first worked with Snake Rattle Rattle Snake and helped them put out their first record. It’s kind of evolved, and we have six artists now and three comedians. It’s called Greater Than because I didn’t want it to just be an Illegal Pete’s thing. I wanted it to be bigger than that.
What’s the story behind naming your restaurant Illegal Pete’s?
It’s nothing nefarious. I don’t talk about it much because I like to keep some of the mystery. My name is Pete. My dad’s name is Pete. I started this business with his help. He was terminally ill with cancer, but he was still my moral support. He cosigned on my loan to open the first Pete’s in Boulder in 1995, so it’s kind of a tribute to him.
How do you differentiate yourself from other fast-casual Mexican chains?
When we came downtown, we knew our direct competition was Chipotle, Qdoba, and Wahoo’s. They were all right here. I used to say this was the most competitive block in the country for our segment. So we had to say, “How can we really compete?” That’s why, when we started the downtown location, we really focused on the bar.
What’s next for Illegal Pete’s?
We’re working on opening our first out-of-state store in the next year, in Tucson. A shareholder of mine, one of my best friends who was my college roommate, lives in Tucson. We’ve been looking at the University of Arizona because we do well in college towns. We’re opening in Fort Collins right now. Also, it would be fun to travel west to areas like California, Utah, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon. We want to be in places where we would like to spend time.