Concerning the name Illegal Pete’s…

“To create an atmosphere that celebrates individuality and relaxed human connection.”
-Vision Statement, Illegal Pete’s, 2001

Concerning the name Illegal Pete’s,

I want to thank you again for meeting with me and my co-workers. We really appreciate the time everyone took from their busy schedules to voice their concerns, as well as the respectful tone of the dialogue. For the meeting, I deliberately decided not to involve any of our supporters in that conversation. I wanted to listen to the concerns that you had; I didn’t want the conversation to devolve into an argument where no one is heard. I know we had limited time and there were a lot of folks that wanted to speak to what the word “illegal” means to them. I was given five minutes to provide a bit of history about my business, the name, the logo, our employment philosophy and track record, things like that. In the past I’ve deliberately kept a lot of this a mystery, to hopefully entice people to look a little deeper into our logos and brand for the meaning in what we do. I never wanted to spell it out. I guess the appreciation for deeper analysis is the English Major in me coming through. To this day, I believe that how we run our business, from the quality of food that we serve, to the employees we hire and promote, and all of the different ways we integrate ourselves into our communities tells our story. In our 20 year history, we have never been explicit and have been able to successfully grow as a company and as individuals.

At our meeting October 22nd at the CSU Lory Student Center it became clear that I need to define the history and context behind our name, brand, values, employees, employment philosophy, community involvement, and where we as a company go from here. I’m going to take this opportunity of open, respectful dialogue to give background to our history, our current reality, and what the word “illegal” means to me.

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.

Our first logo was a censor bar, like on the cover of a Sex Pistols album. Illegal Pete’s very first branded piece is something that I made to paper up the windows when we were under construction. I took a photo from National Geographic of a lion with its arm wrapped around a gazelle, about to go in for the kill. I blew the image up, pixilated it, made it black and white, and put the Illegal Pete’s censor bar logo over the lion’s eyes. I was having fun with the idea of “illegal,” making a newspaper crime photo out of something from nature. There was absolutely no mention of “Coming Soon” or “Great Food;” nothing to indicate what type of business was going to be opening, nothing at all but the image. Was this childish or foolish? Possibly. Was this good marketing, good business, a smart introduction to the restaurant I was soon opening? Probably not, as I found that many people thought I was opening a pet store – “Illegal Pet’s, what’s that?” they’d ask. We used this logo as our original restaurant sign, in newspaper ads, and in a series of photos of my first employees that a friend of mine took, printed and put up in the restaurant.


The logo and brand moved in a different direction in year two as I experimented with other logos. Expanding on the censor bar logo the idea of “Stars and Bars”, i.e. the American flag, came to mind and I envisioned a riff on that. I still have the original drawing I made of that logo as well as my first digital take done on a friend’s Mac.


I’ll just go ahead and say now that I’m probably opening myself up to more criticism with this history of our flag Logo, as a flag can be a very loaded image in the context of a discussion about immigration and national identity. That being said, I won’t avoid it.

We have since adapted the Colorado flag for Illegal Pete’s logo shirts as well.

The next iteration of Illegal Pete’s branding came when I was conceptualizing an ad for the “Welcome Back” edition of The Onion newspaper in Boulder. We had always done full page ads, and I was thinking about how our ad could have visual impact in that issue. As I was lying in bed one night unable to sleep, I thought that an entire black page would be kind of cool, at least something that I’d never seen before, and I thought it might be interesting. Being a huge AC/DC fan, my mind immediately went to the album Back in Black. I remember my oldest sister bringing that LP home as a kid, and I would listen to it outside her room as she played it over and over. I would sneak into her room to stare at the record sleeve when she wasn’t there. It fascinated me. Still does. So naturally, I mimicked the AC/DC Lightning Bolt logo with Illegal Pete’s centered on a black page with the words “Welcome Black” under it. We ran this ad many, many times in Denver and in Boulder and the Illegal Pete’s “Rocker” logo was born.

We opened our second restaurant on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder in 1998, and another piece of the Illegal Pete’s brand iconography was born. My father had passed away the year before, and I wanted to honor him in the restaurants in some way. The idea was to adapt the idea of Loteria images in a way that spoke to Illegal Pete’s spirit and what is important to us in an abstract way. Loteria is a Mexican card game that is iconic in its imagery. The idea was to do a series of three cards in each of our restaurants. These cards we created don’t exist in the Loteria but are inspired by the imagery of the game. The cards would be: La Mente, El Cuerpo, and El Alma, or “Mind, Body, And Soul.” Each of the images would represent an abstract take on each of those words – different for each set of three. The original Pearl Street location set, for example, is a big cozy chair for Mind, an old school-looking boxer for Body, and an antique cabinet radio for Soul. The three cards are numbered in this order: 3, 31, 40. This is my father’s birthday. So, as we have opened new Illegal Pete’s locations we too have added new sets of three card paintings each labeled 3/La Mente, 31/ El Cuerpo, and 40/ El Alma, each with new imagery corresponding to those words as abstract representations of those words, or ideas even. I’ve never really told many people about this but since I’m really giving flesh to our branding I figure it’s ok to let everyone in on this tribute to my father Pete.

During these years we also had fun with ads playing on classic movie posters for our summer and holidays seasons, an ad for our delivery service and a beautiful double-fold center ad in The Onion that’s a take on an old illustrated map.

We launched our catering service with our take on the Luche Libre Mexican wrestling tradition in our “We Bring It” campaign. This campaign paid homage to the legendary Mil Mascaras Mexican Luchador, with our Luchador Mil Maneras, or the Thousand Ways, alluding to the fact that our catering setup allows for many, many different food combinations.

It’s interesting to note that we sponsored a number of Luche Libre competitions in Denver and even had a contract with a Luchador “Villian”, Rokambo.

More recently we’ve adapted our name for t-shirts paying homage to our hometown sports teams. It’s never been enough for me to just express our brand with words and images. I believe that authenticity of belief is born and lives in action. Over the last twenty years we’ve built our brand more and more through responsibly sourcing the food we serve from community-based businesses, providing above average wages, tangible benefits, and support to our employees, and giving back to our communities.

While we take pride in every ingredient that we prepare, the relationship that we have cultivated with Niman Ranch, the industry leader in sustainable and humane agricultural practices, is something we greatly value. We partner with Niman Ranch to provide all of our beef and pork because we feel it is the right thing to do. Their superior animal husbandry standards and their sustainable land use standards all lead to a better tasting product. But, more importantly to me, is how the Niman Ranch program allows for family farmers and ranchers around the country to make a good, sustainable living, as well as providing scholarships to send their kids to college. Niman Ranch makes it possible for family farms to once again grow and flourish In an era of factory farming. This human part of the Niman Ranch story equally speaks to me. Our commitment to Niman is born out of our vision of creating a business that celebrates individuality and human connection.

People are the most valued part of Illegal Pete’s community. This is evidenced in how we integrate and support each community in which we reside through providing great employment opportunities. Just as we pride ourselves on full inclusivity in our customer base, we pride ourselves on being inclusive in our hiring practices.

We treat all employees well and think of our co-workers as friends and family. Our average manager tenure is nine years and 100% of them have been grown from within. We have employees that have worked for us for close to the entire time we’ve been in business. I couldn’t in good conscience work with our communities the way we do and commit to source Niman Ranch meats without that commitment “starting at home” to borrow from the old saying about charity.

Since day one at Illegal Pete’s, the back of the house cook starting wage has been equal or greater than the front of the house. We are also unique in the industry in that all hourly employees in the front and the back of the house split tips equally.

Many people have asked us how the Affordable Care Act affected our business. I answer truthfully that it didn’t impact us at all, as we had been making good medical and dental insurance available and affordable to our employees for over a decade. We’ve had a 401k available to our employees for over a decade. Every employee earns paid time off from day one. This is rare in the restaurant industry.

Over the last 18 months we’ve been conducting a wage benchmarking study on our closest competitors, and the fast casual/restaurant industry as a whole, with an idea towards being the Gold Standard in our industry. We’ve found that we already pay higher at all levels of employment.

That’s not good enough for me however. We want to pay living wage plus, taking into account our entire compensation package: wage, tips, shift meals and drinks, 50%’s, health insurance, and paid time off. Our plan starting April 1st, 2015 is for all front line new hires to earn $32,000/ year total compensation, kitchen new hires at $33,000 total compensation, with all positions above that adjusted accordingly. This represents a minimum financial commitment of an additional $600,000 in payroll annually at our current store count.

Our Mission Statement establishes our commitment to supporting and growing our employees; furthermore, it sets forth our commitment to our communities. As our mission states, “To sum it up, we want to be an integral, unique part of every neighborhood in which we reside.” It establishes our ultimate goal of seeping “into the sidewalk and becoming a portion of the whole.” From day one, we have opened our doors to all, making everyone feel welcome in a place that they can get great food and drinks. As we’ve become more successful, I wanted to give back to the communities that we inhabit. Our community outreach creates opportunities for children and families in underserved communities and provides funding to local arts and music programs. We support the youth in our communities from everything to school donations, youth literacy and nutrition programs, donating to homeless shelters, supporting the development of a music studio for disadvantaged youth in Denver, and even partnering with the Denver-based literacy program, Comicbook Classroom in Denver to provide over 100 kids from underprivileged areas in Denver an opportunity to attend the nationally-renowned annual Denver Comic Convention. We also actively seek out opportunities to do fundraisers for community organizations, raising thousands of dollars a year for local schools, support for local disaster relief agencies, the American Cancer Association, and The Joshua School, a Colorado-based non-profit that provides opportunities for families and individuals affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder. We also believe in cultivating the arts in our communities, through sponsorships, donations and by feeding the artists from all parts of the country that are pursuing their dreams and enriching our communities’ cultural landscape.

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.

—Pete Turner