In the summer of 1995, Pete Turner and his dad opened the first Illegal Pete’s on Boulder’s University Hill, selling fast-casual Mexican food with a California twist.
Pete Turner Sr., who had cancer and passed away two years later, was never well enough to work in the restaurant. But he gave his son unwavering moral support and inspired the restaurant chain’s name with his famously rebellious nature.
“It’s a tribute to the spirit that I wanted to reflect in the restaurant, which is irreverent, anti-authority, a little bit punk rock,” Turner said.
Over the next six months, Illegal Pete’s will add three restaurants to its 12 locations in Colorado and Arizona. One of the new spots will open in Boulder’s Table Mesa Shopping Center in early December, replacing the former New American restaurant, Murphy’s South.
“I’ve been thinking for years that we’d like to be in South Boulder,” Turner said. “The Murphy’s owners reached out to us in May and said, ‘Do you want to take over our lease?’ It kind of fell in our lap.”
Murphy’s South, which opened in 2009 and was one of three Murphy’s locations in and around Boulder, had been experiencing low sales since before the Covid pandemic, according to Adam Perkins, owner and general manager of Murphy’s Tap House in Louisville.
“The pandemic was also unkind to that location and things weren’t improving post-pandemic either,” Perkins said. “With the inflation situation and the cost of doing business, we ultimately determined that it was time to pass the torch to our friends at Illegal Pete’s.”
Murphy’s North, the small chain’s original restaurant, opened in 1984 on Iris Avenue and closed in the summer of 2021. Murphy’s Tap House in Louisville is the last remaining location and is, Perkins said, “thriving and well.”
The previous Murphy’s South space will undergo some renovations before Illegal Pete’s can move in. Turner said Illegal Pete’s will install new equipment and seating, and update the exterior facade. Illegal Pete’s is waiting on a demolition permit to begin the minor construction.
Meanwhile, in January, a new Illegal Pete’s will open in Gold’s Marketplace shopping center in Wheat Ridge. Another will launch in February in downtown Colorado Springs, the first in the city. Late next year, Turner will open a 16th location, and Denver’s seventh, in West Colfax.
Turner said that, before the pandemic, he opened a new store almost every year, but he hasn’t expanded since 2020. He long had plans to open in Wheat Ridge and Colorado Springs and to grow in Denver.
“Covid kind of put a halt to that and these stacked up,” Turner said. But as national supply chains improve, he’s making up for lost time. “I normally wouldn’t do this many right in a row. I’ve never done that.”
Illegal Pete’s has also expanded its corporate team by hiring President and CFO John Montgomery, COO Josh Blanchard and Chief of Staff Ruth Jones.
“We’ve been building the team to help us support the growth, which is nice because I needed help,” said Turner, who was Illegal Pete’s president until last summer.
Turner was 23 when he signed Illegal Pete’s first lease on The Hill, two years after graduating with an English degree from CU Boulder. He had worked in restaurants and wanted to launch his own, dedicated to the cuisine that helped define his childhood.
Illegal Pete’s menu “embodies the type of food that I grew up loving and eating,” Turner said.
Turner’s mother was raised in San Diego, where he spent summers growing up, indulging in taquitos, fish tacos and quesadillas with his extended family. Throughout college, Turner often visited friends in northern California, where he enjoyed Mission-style burritos, which originated in San Francisco and are often much larger than traditional Mexican burritos.
Illegal Pete’s first California-style Mexican restaurant on The Hill launched with only eight seats. In 1998, Turner opened the Pearl Street Mall location. He said he had always wanted to open a third in-town spot in South Boulder but never found the right location at the right time.
That changed when Murphy’s South closed. Although Murphy’s no longer has locations in Boulder, it has made room for an expanding chain.
“I love the university, and I love the town. It’s special for me,” Turner said of his new South Boulder spot. “We’re excited to have the opportunity to do another business there.”