BEHIND THE PETE'S: An Exclusive Interview With Illegal Pete's Virgil Dickerson

Illegal Pete's successfully brought an end to the great Burrito deficit of the mid 90's in Colorado. We no longer have to fret about both frosted tips or the absence of good mission style Mexican food. At the forefront of the sustained efforts of Illegal Pete's stands the one, the only: the Virgil. 

In an exclusive tell all with the man who does all and knows all things Denver, we get the inside scoop about ingredient sourcing, secret menu items, and why Illegal Pete's is so special. 

Photo: Travel Channel

Photo: Travel Channel


U5280: What does the average patron doesn't know about Illegal Pete's?

VIRGIL DICKERSON: Many patrons don't know about our Starving Artist Program (where we feed any out of town band for free when they come through Colorado and Arizona), that we have a record label (with 10 bands and 3 comedians), and that we are partners in festivals (High Plains Comedy Festival and Dusk Music Festival). We also do fundraisers every month at every store where we raise funds for non-profits. We do month long fundraisers for Youth on Record and The Joshua School. And on Colorado Gives Day, we partner with a different, local non-profit at every location. 

U5280: Illegal Pete's has been making itself at home in Colorado since the mid 90's. What were the early days like?

VIRGIL DICKERSON: In those early days, I didn't work for Pete's, but I was a patron. The first store was tiny and at first did not have a bar. The second location on Pearl Street wasn't much bigger, but they opened up with a bar. In those days, when you were in line, you usually knew many of the people in line. There wasn't breakfast then, but we always had late night and late nights on the Hill and on Pearl were always nuts. 

U5280: Illegal Pete's is a company with a lot of heart. What aspects of the company model help create the friendly, personable and relaxed environment? 

VIRGIL DICKERSON: It all starts with Pete. Pete is one of those rare business owners who puts his people above profits. It's not that he doesnt' believe in profits, but he makes decisions based on whether it's the right decision and not necessarily the decision that will make the most money. This is why when I asked Pete to start a Starving Artist program and give bands half off of food, he said why not give bands free food. Pete recently did a wage increase across the entire company last year to ensure that all of  his staff were earning a living wage and recently rolled out a 401K. These is not common for the restaurant industry. 

U5280: What gets older: eating burritos everyday, or hearing burrito jokes every day? 

VIRGIL DICKERSON: Oh man, that's a great question. I don't eat burritos every day (not sure if there is everything I could eat every day) and luckily I don't hear burrito jokes every day. Come to think of it, I'd like to hear more burrito jokes in my life. Have any? 

U5280: What efforts does Illegal Pete's make to source good food? 

VIRGIL DICKERSON: We are always striving to find the very best ingredients. We source our pork and beef from Creekstone. Creekstone never uses hormones or antibiotics. Our tortillas have no artificial flavors and no preservatives. We do our best to recognize the dietary needs of our customers. Recently, we replaced pine nuts with pumpkin seeds as people with nut allergies are able to eat pumpkin seeds.  

U5280: The Starving Artist program feeds touring musicians every day who roll through town. How did the concept come about? 

VIRGIL DICKERSON: In my former life, I ran a record label called Suburban Home. I used to tour with my bands and on one stop in Santa Fe, the promoter told us to check out Fred's Brread because they gave touring bands half off their food. We ate there, it was great, and I never forgot about that restaurant. Fast forward to 2010 when I started working for Illegal Pete's, I asked Pete if we could give touring bands half off food. As I mentioned above, he said why not give bands food for free and we haven't looked back. In 2015, we fed over 400 bands and I thin we will feed over 700 bands this year. 

U5280:  Illegal Pete's has done a lot to support local music. What shows should we put on our calendars for November? 

VIRGIL DICKERSON: I'd say that if you have not yet seen Brent Cowles or the Still Tide, they are two of Greater Than's more recent acts and they are both incredible. You should just go to any local show you can. I could list about a hundred local acts that I adore and still so many more to see. 

U5280: Any secrets to the Pete's menu? 
Well, we have secret menu items. While I'd like to share them with your readers, we prefer our customers to find out about these items by word of mouth or randomly. We can't wait for you to find these items on your own. 

U5280:  Illegal Pete's is a restaurant built on good combos: freshly grilled meat, house-prepped salsas, great guac. Then there's the company: good people, good music, and good food. It seems like the Pete's team has figured life out. Impart the wisdom! Tell us the perfect Pete's burrito we have yet to try.

VIRGIL DICKERSON: I think if you ask anyone at Pete's, you are likely to get a different answer each time. I typically get burrito bowls, but when I do have burritos, they are almost always one of two burritos: a pork carnitas potato burrito or a big fish burrito. 

U5280: Any thing left to impart on the Pete's fiends? 

VIRGIL DICKERSON: Well, we are looking to grow Illegal Pete's to other cities and possibly other states over the next 4 years. Our first out of state location, in Tucson, Arizona, is going incredibly well. We hope to open locations in Tempe, Flagstaff, and possibly Phoenix. My personal wish list includes Portland, Austin, and Seattle. We have some fun projects in the works that I hope see the light in 2017. It's going to be another fun year!