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.
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.
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
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.
had worked her
way through college toiling in a Mexican restaurant in Washington State, so she
old friend, Bob Worthington, the manager of Old Pepe's Mexican Villa.
didn't want to join her
Alaskan adventure, but he
did send her
a copy of his
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.
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.
knew I was an honest person," Tate
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
"When we opened, we were the hottest thing in town," Tate
says with a pride in her
It took only a week to get the cash to cover her
"Everybody thought I was nuts," Tate
"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
"Now I don't give them work," Tate
"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.
offered to move her
restaurant into the hotel's facility.
did, Pepe's capacity increased by nearly 200 seats.
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.
One Easter, Tate
planned an elaborate brunch.
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.
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.
offers half-priced meals for men on Father's Day.
funds the town's New Year's fireworks (the sun doesn't set in July).
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.
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
confesses that by the time she
gets to the last hundred cards, she's
ready to start throwing them away.
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.
was dining at Pepe's
and wouldn't admit to Tate
"Do you work for the competition?
The woman's answer was a gift.
"There is no competition for you!
entertained the president of British Petroleum
with a buffet featuring roast New Zealand lamb chops.
"Are we getting fancy, or what?
Now in her
doesn't look like she's
works more than 16 hours per day, and is considering reopening her
water and sewage businesses.
happy in Barrow where she
can try out her
"crazy ideas" as she
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.
sums it up simply, "The people up here are different."