How Illegal Pete's Pete Turner combined his love of music, food and beer

How Illegal Pete's Pete Turner combined his love of music, food and beer

CultureJune 21, 2014 By Brian Frederick

No matter how far we come as a society, the nagging references to success based off of monetary worth or educational aptitude remain. It’s not even that the smartest of us are the revered and praised people. Rather, the number of degrees one seeks and maintains is the bearing of validation. Go to school, get a job and be happy with both are the ever-pressing and redundant offerings from adults who just won’t let anyone be happy with nine-hour “House of Cards” and Jimmy Johns marathons.

But the Richard Bransons and Coco Chanels of the world are beginning to paint that small area of opportunity grey and have shown most life-hungry kids that having direction early on may not always be the end-all to success. In fact, most independently successful people say they’ve abandoned a course or two and failed just as often. What someone sets out to do in life may not always be what he or she grows to stature with, and that’s perfectly OK.

One of those course-diverting successes is Denver native and CU Boulder alumni Pete Turner. He’s the owner and founder of Illegal Pete’s and began his quest into burrito notoriety from Bay-area inspirations. Turner found himself on the coast one summer visiting friends and became interested in the hand-held meals he mowed down beachside. He credits his college experiences at the time as the pivoting point in his life’s direction, not his English degree.

“I went out to visit friends on the coast and saw a few restaurants that were doing well and had great burritos,” says Turner. “As a student at CU, it’s something that I would have eaten every day. I was an English major. I wasn’t one who knew exactly what I wanted to do, but I like to read and write. It was just default. I had always thought that I wanted to do my own business of some type though.”

So when graduation came and went in 1993 for him, he says he began crafting his recipes at his parents’ old-style ranch house in Boulder. Soon after, in 1995, he opened the first Illegal Pete’s on the campus hill at only 23 years old.

The restaurants garnered attention in the burrito boom for one small, yet significant gesture. Rather than slop the ingredients down and roll without accord, Pete’s burrito handlers mix the ingredients. Turner says the nod to blending the burrito is important in creating a free marketing buzz between customers. 

Illegal Pete’s attention to detail is visible not only in the heavy variety the restaurants offer but in its care to unique services. Its bars hold their own reputations as well. Each one carries Colorado craft beers from a variety of producers and boasts popular hangouts within a broad range of demographics. Turner said he believes the support of other local businesses is imperative and that it fits right in with his locally proud business mantras.

“Seeing the microbreweries craze has been really, really cool,” says Turner. “There’s like 50 opening this year or something ridiculous, but it’s cool to see that market sustainable. Everybody has their own niche and market going around here. People in Colorado are independent and pretty locally proud. To see the support go out to that is neat.”

There are now six locations to enjoy, with more coming soon, including options on the DU campus, the Denver Tech Center, in Boulder and in downtown Denver. The South Broadway spot, which sits on the edge of the “Baker Drag,” is by far the biggest and carries one of the best patios the stretch has ever seen. Turner and his crew just signed a lease for a new Denver location on Race Street and Colfax Avenue, which will place the joint in the midst of a high traffic and concert nightlife area. The Fort Collins location will open in late August, and expansion plans out of state are quickly becoming reality. Tucson, Ariz., may see its own Illegal Pete’s in the next few years. Though the multi-state mission is a palpable goal, Turner still contends his home has offerings other states don’t.

“(Colorado has) a good quality of life,” says Turner. “I think that’s the biggest draw. The standard of living is pretty good. You get a lot more bang for your buck here than on the coasts. The growth in Denver and the Front Range has been awesome. There’s so much more available now, it’s a great place to be.”

Turner is also a large proponent of local entertainment. He started the Greater Than record label with friend and Illegal Pete’s marketing director Virgil Dickerson (Suburban Home Records). Its ultimate mission as a collective, he says, is to provide an outlet of support for local comedians and musicians.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of music,” says Turner. “I’m at a place now that I can give back to those artists that I love, and it’s such a great scene to be a part of anyways. The entertainment growth in Colorado is pretty unmatched right now.”

Recently the label released a pair of acclaimed albums from stand-up comedian Ben Roy and singer-songwriter Esmé Patterson. Other artists include A. Tom Collins, Snake Rattle Rattle Snake, Ian Cooke, Ark Life and The Epilogues.

Aside from the ‘bito grind, record label and home life, Turner also has a solid philanthropic side that gives personal value to his charitable vision. His stores are often seen supporting concepts of one kind or another, from “starving artists” to “smothering autism.”

He skillfully blends entertainment promotions, altruism, beer and great food in his brand and has managed to thrive in an unwavering force of variety. As simple as a gesture it is to stir the ingredients, so too is his pursuit of growing his state, whether it’s physically nourishing the community with high-quality foods, catering to the public’s vices or progressing the arts.

Turner’s mission of giving back what he takes in may not be a popular ideal in the corporate world of penny pinching and dollar dodging, but it’s the way he enjoys it. He says if he isn’t doing it his way, then he’d rather not even be in the business.

“If I can’t give back,” says Turner, “I don’t really have anything at all.”