Tacos of the Tundra

by Deborah J. Myers

 

 


Fran Tate Inside Pepe's

Starting a business from scratch is a risky venture. Even these days, half of new businesses need more capital than anticipated, and three-quarters of their owners earn a lower-than-anticipated standard of living in the year 2000 (www.whitmanlane.com). Pile on the disadvantage of no industry experience, little start-up money, a hostile population, and a location 300 miles above the Arctic Circle, and you get an idea of what Fran Tate faced twenty years ago.

When the then 50-something engineer lost her position designing airstrips and drilling sights, her company, on contract with the Navy, offered her a desk job in Anchorage. Instead of taking that cushy position, safely located within the confines of civilization, Tate chose to stay in Barrow, Alaska, a tiny town perched on the edge of an eternally freezing ocean. "I wanted to be moving," she says, abhorring the thought of pencil pushing. Barrow didn't have running water or sewage services. All supplies had to be air shipped because no roads connected the town to the outside world. Tate didn't heed these seeming portends of disaster; she knew that if she wanted to stay in Barrow, she would have to make a new business work.

She flew a couple of trucks up from Anchorage and used them to start two businesses that supplied essential needs: water and sewage hauling. When Barrow eventually provided public services, Tate looked around at the drilling town and concluded that Barrow's growing population of oil people and visitors had nothing to do.

"Everyone said they wanted a Mexican restaurant," she says. It made sense that people would want hot, spicy food in a freezing climate. Trouble was, she didn't cook; however, she remembered someone who did. Tate had worked her way through college toiling in a Mexican restaurant in Washington State, so she called her old friend, Bob Worthington, the manager of Old Pepe's Mexican Villa. He didn't want to join her Alaskan adventure, but he did send her a copy of his menu. Bob Green, a cook from Mexico, became Tate's first
chef, and he helped her get the staff she needed to get Pepe's
running. "Whenever anyone leaves or goes on vacation, they call friends in Mexico and get someone to come up and work for me," she says. Before they were finished, Pepe's North of the Border would offer over 150 items.

As for a building, Tate applied for loans at eleven banks in Anchorage, but no one would give her any money because they thought she couldn't make it. Eventually, she renovated an abandoned house. It took quite a toll on her savings to get the facility livable and equipped to serve food.

Near the end of the renovation, Tate's cash ran out. Desperate to make her new business profitable, she wrote a total of $11,000.00 in hot checks three days before the place opened. "Loan by debiting an account with no cash," is how she euphemized writing rubber checks. "But don't try this!"

One of her vendors called the cops, but Tate happened to know the Chief of Police personally. "He knew I was an honest person," Tate says. Begging him to stall disgruntled vendors, Tate convinced the him not to arrest her but rather to give her a week to make good on her checks.

"When we opened, we were the hottest thing in town," Tate says with a pride in her voice. It took only a week to get the cash to cover her bad checks. Pretty remarkable for a restaurant that seated only 34 people.

In 1984, when news of Tate's success hit The Wall Street Journal, those same bankers who refused to lend her money sent her their business cards stapled to the clipped article, hoping to win her back. By then, she didn't need their money.

The banks in Anchorage weren't the only Doubting Thomases. "Everybody thought I was nuts," Tate says, chuckling. "People in this town wished I would fail. They don't want to see a woman that aggressive make it. Then they thought I would fail because I had no money."

Some of the local carpenters and plumbers refused to help Tate while she was struggling. "Now I don't give them work," Tate says. "They’ll call asking for it, but they won't get work from me."

When Pepe's first opened, it was the only restaurant in town except for a restaurant housed in the hotel. Eventually, Pepe's drove the other eatery out of business. The hotel management offered Tate a chance to revive the faltering restaurant; however, she couldn't abandon Pepe's. Instead, she offered to move her restaurant into the hotel's facility. When she did, Pepe's capacity increased by nearly 200 seats. Now, Tate could offer banquet and meeting space in Pepe's two dining rooms, and the adjoining coffee shop would provide a casual meeting place for locals and guests.

While founding Pepe's was challenging then, maintaining the far-flung restaurant now keeps life interesting for Tate. Even today, Barrow is not connected by roads to any other town. All Tate's supplies must still be shipped by air, usually from Anchorage or Fairbanks. The expense is daunting—a gallon of bleach costs over $15.00 because of Hazardous Materials charges. Aerosol cans of whipping cream must be shipped in their own box because of their pressurized contents. Lightweight paper goods aren't a shipping bargain because they’re shipped by volume. Timeliness is another issue. Tate laments that lettuce often freezes and turns translucent while meat rots in a warm warehouse en route. Bad weather occasionally blocks her supplies altogether.

Paired with her indefatigable spirit, Tate's quality food made Pepe's stand out even as other restaurants opened in Barrow. Everything is made fresh, despite the difficulty in receiving supplies. People may balk at the exorbitant cost of an order of guacamole, but avocados are hard to come by in the tundra. "We tried [canned guacamole] once, and it just wasn't any good," she says. One of Pepe's big selling points is good lettuce, in spite of occasional freezes en route. "The hotel [restaurant] couldn't do it."

One Easter, Tate planned an elaborate brunch. She published her extensive menu and anticipated an enthusiastic crowd. Unfortunately, an erupting volcano's ash grounded all flights to and from Barrow. Not only would Pepe’s special brunch be limited, but the restaurant’s regular supplies were also unavailable. Undaunted, Tate posted a sign on Pepe's door that read, "What you see is what you get."

Tate's pluck and perpetual self-promotion have slowly won over Barrow's favor as she has shifted her focus from utility to fun, using any excuse she can to drum up interest in Pepe's. Every Easter, she dresses as the Easter bunny and rides the town bus passing out candy. She offers half-priced meals for men on Father's Day. She funds the town's New Year's fireworks (the sun doesn't set in July). She chairs the Polar Bear Club whose frosty submerges in the Arctic Ocean earn inductees a certificate and a patch. During hard times, Tate is also supportive of Barrow residents. The night before a funeral, she delivers a ham to the grieving family in person, and lingers to comfort them.

Visitors, prized for their word-of-mouth power, are treated to warm hospitality in Tate's corner of the Arctic. Every visitor to Pepe's receives a color brochure, and an "I Love Pepe's" button. Tate says that many visitors stop in because someone told them that if they're going that far North, they must eat at Pepe's. Unless they bypass the guest book, she also sends them a Christmas card. Most years, her staff hand-addresses over 7,000 cards and Tate signs every one. (She doesn't do computers, she proclaims proudly, waiting for someone to extol the gadget's marvels to her once again). She confesses that by the time she gets to the last hundred cards, she's ready to start throwing them away. But she sticks with the arduous task, even when it takes until May to finish them.

Tate's penchant for community involvement, customer service, and quality have paid off. One of her best compliments came from an unlikely source—a waitress from another restaurant in town. She was dining at Pepe's and wouldn't admit to Tate where she worked. "Do you work for the competition?" Tate teased. The woman's answer was a gift. "There is no competition for you!" she said.

Recently, Pepe's entertained the president of British Petroleum with a buffet featuring roast New Zealand lamb chops. "Are we getting fancy, or what?" Tate boasts.

Now in her 70's, Tate doesn't look like she's slowing down. She works more than 16 hours per day, and is considering reopening her water and sewage businesses. She's happy in Barrow where she can try out her "crazy ideas" as she calls them. If Fran Tate is crazy, she's crazy like a fox.

After a successful career and three successful businesses, one wonders why Tate should stay in Barrow. She sums it up simply, "The people up here are different."

That much is apparent.


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