Favorite Fort Collins restaurant is at the center of property dispute
One of Fort Collins’ oldest Mexican restaurants closed last Spring, and its new owner wants to sell the property to a fast food chain that plans to knock the building down. But now the Perez family, who ran the restaurant for decades, is fighting to preserve the building and its history.
Asher Haun owns the humble blue and yellow building on North College formerly known as Pobre Pancho’s restaurant. He has spent almost a year trying to sell this building to Raising Cane's chicken fingers chain, which plans to replace it with one of their popular drive-thrus. But Fort Collins city officials now say the building is a part of local history, and demolishing it won’t be so simple.
But before Haun disappointed the family who sold him the restaurant, before he was wrapped up in a bureaucratic battle over the nature of history, Haun was a devoted customer of Pobre Pancho’s.
“The recipes are still the best in town. You can't beat it,” Haun said.
For decades, Haun spent his lunch breaks from his HVAC business enjoying the food and the hospitality of Pobre Pancho's founder Frank Perez. He remembered how Perez would always come and sit with Haun and his wife when they dined.
That was not unusual, said Frank Perez’s daughter, Monica Bird.
“My dad felt like he was friends with everybody who came in,” Bird said, adding that she even remembers the green chili enchiladas Haun used to order.
The menu at Pancho’s was based on recipes that Frank’s mom brought with her when the family moved from Mexico. As one of the only Latino kids in some of his classes, Perez experienced blatant racism.
“It was a lot. There was a trip to a local restaurant when they were in high school and the manager comes up and says, ‘We will serve everybody, but those two,’” Bird said.
When Perez grew up, he opened his own restaurant. He ran it tirelessly for 5 decades before he was diagnosed with cancer.
“He would work through anything, but when they finally told him the size [the tumor] was, and it wasn't changing he was like I can't go in anymore,” Bird said.
When Asher Haun heard that Perez was selling the restaurant, the loyal customer followed an impulse. “I made the smart remark that ‘Well, shoot, maybe I ought to buy it,’” Haun said. “It wasn't that I needed that restaurant; I wanted to keep it going.”
Asher Haun bought Pobre Pancho's in August 2020 and began renovating. He added new appliances and put fresh paint on the walls. Two months later, after a lifetime of building community around green chili and a friendly hello, Frank Perez died.
As the months passed, Haun couldn’t break even on the restaurant.
“My accountant kept telling me food prices are going up, food prices are going up,” Haun said.
Since he first bought the place, Haun said that Raising Cane's approached him regularly to buy it. After a year and a half of losing money on the restaurant, he decided to sell. Monica Bird was crushed.
“I was dumbfounded,” Bird said. “It really felt like my dad had passed again because it was such a big part of our lives and it's gone.”
But one morning, there was a new sign in front of the building—"Historic Review Underway." Pancho’s was one of the oldest family-owned Mexican restaurants in the city and a cornerstone of North College. Fort Collins officials made Pobre Pancho's eligible to become a landmark. That means any changes to the building need a city-approved plan to preserve its history. Haun disagrees with the decision.
“Oh, there's history there. No question about it,” Haun said. “But the building itself does not qualify in my eyes. Paint it different colors and you could make a house out of it.”
Jim Bertolini reviews development plans in the city for historic preservation. He says that it’s about what happened at the building, not what it looks like.
“We need to be able to preserve the generic buildings that have very non-generic stories in them, because that place, in this case the restaurant where people came together as a community, that building holds those stories,” Bertolini said.
For Monica Bird, the city's decision has led her to see her father's place in local history in a new light.
“An individual from the ghettos of Mexico can go through a life and impact others around him, the community, and make such a historical imprint. You don't have to be some rich person,” Bird said. “I mean, you read other people in history, you don't think of yourself as part of history.”
Bird is now applying to certify Pobre Pancho's as a landmark, and fundraising to buy the building back. Haun still wants to sell to Raising Cane’s, and hopes a dedication to the Perez family at the new drive-thru will satisfy the city.