When Pete Contos arrived in Denver in 1955, fresh off the plane from Greece, he didn’t have a dime in his pocket or know a word of English. He found a job washing dishes and worked his way up; today, the 76-year-old Contos owns eight dining establishments under the “Pete’s” brand, including the iconic greasy spoon Pete’s Kitchen. Along the way, he learned a thing or two about life, marriage, modeling, and barroom brawls.
I came to the United States on October 10, 1955, when I was 20 years old. I had a visa from my uncle. He was here in Denver. I came straight to Denver. I came here to better myself.
A friend of my uncle’s found me a job washing dishes in downtown Denver. Coronado Café. Dishwashing was better than staying home and watching TV. My eyes were hurting. I was watching TV all the time.
I went to work in a very fancy dining room and bar on 17th and Broadway. I became a bartender. That was my dream because I like people. I had a lot of fun tending bar. I did it for 33 years. I met good people. I didn’t know their names. I knew their drinks.
I did modeling for about a year while I was a bartender. A lady owned and operated the John Robert Powers modeling agency. I modeled for ads for teeth, suits. My wife came to see me do the work one day. There were ladies in bikinis. She told me it’s this job or me. I stopped modeling.
My first business started on December 1, 1962, with a partner. We bought the Satire Lounge. We paid $48,500. The place wasn’t that great of a place at the time. I had problems with the customers here and there. Had to throw some people out. I came home with a black eye once. It became a real, real nice place, a big business in 1966.
Religion is important. I’m active in the Greek Orthodox Church. I grew up that way. Five sisters and three brothers: We grew up in church in the old country, Arcadia. My father was a farmer, a sheepherder. My mother died when I was two years old. My father never remarried. The war came along—1940 to 1950—we were suffering. That’s why I left.
I met my wife at church. We have been married 51 years. The secret to marriage is you’ve got to be nice. She’s a nice person, a very nice person. She helped me a lot with the books in the business.
I spend a lot of time in Pete’s Kitchen because we stay open 24 hours. I bought Pete’s Kitchen at 1962 East Colfax Avenue in 1988. I tried to buy it first time for $40,000 but the guy, he wouldn’t sell. I waited. The city ended up selling it at auction. I bought it for $26,000.
I have had my picture taken with sports guys, basketball players, Chauncey Billups; the mayor of the city of Denver, Wellington Webb; the governor, Roy Romer. The best one was John Elway. He was a customer at the University Park Cafe. He was also always kind. People say he was snooty, but no. He was always very, very nice to me.
In 1991, I bought Pete’s Gyros Place. I helped it open in 1976 for a friend of mine; I was the first one to bring the gyro to Colorado from Chicago in 1976.
The keys to running a successful restaurant: honesty and hard work. Be good to your customers. You’ve got to serve them a good meal, good portions, and reasonably priced.
Why stay open 24 hours? If business is good all the time, why not?
We’ve felt the downturn in the economy a little bit in all of the restaurants, except Pete’s Kitchen. Business there is very good.
When it comes to hiring, hire good-looking girls.
My philosophy is: Everything in moderation.
No regrets. Everything I’ve done I thought it was for the best. I have no problem with anything.