The most famous Mexican restaurant above the Arctic Circle caught fire in the early morning hours of Saturday. Despite North Slope Borough firefighters battling the blaze from about 2 a.m. to 9:30, little is left of Pepe’s North of the Border restaurant in Barrow, Alaska.
Pepe’s, owned by long-time Barrow resident Fran Tate since it began, has long been known as the go-to eatery in the community, a reputation earned among a wide variety of people who travel to the northern-most city in the U.S., home to about 4,200 Alaskans.
The landmark restaurant served as a community hub for locals, the scene of more than one wedding, and countless first dates. Visitors, oil field workers, scientists, and even celebrities from around the world all remember Pepe's no matter how far away from Barrow they may travel.
In the very early hours Saturday morning, now dark as the community continues toward the constant darkness of winter at the top of the world, Mike Shults, the owner’s son and a Barrow resident, heard from firefighters.
They asked if he had a key to the restaurant. There was smoke coming out of the building, they said. Shults said he did not have a key and told them to kick down the door, he said.
Most of the building was already on fire when responders entered the restaurant, and by 3 a.m., Pepe’s was fully engulfed in flames.
Hard fight to save hotel, bank
About 30 personnel responded to the fire with three fire engines and one tanker. Conditions worsened at an alarming speed, said North Slope Borough Assistant Fire Chief Joe Dingman, so firefighters shifted their efforts toward an attached hotel and nearby bank.
Shults watched the restaurant burn to the ground through the night; crews fought the blaze valiantly until 6 in the morning, he said.
Three hours earlier, when the more than two dozen firefighters, official and volunteer, assembled at the site of the blaze and realized how serious it was, guests at the 50-room Top of the World Hotel had been ordered to evacuate.
Two North Slope Borough vehicles were parked next to the restaurant; both melted under the intense heat of the blaze. A third of the windows on a three-story Wells Fargo bank shattered due to the fire, and the side of the bank was charred, Shults said.
“The three-story bank right next door, the flames were twice as high as that,” he said. “They were just shooting. You could see it from all over town. And they fought it and fought it and fought it.”
To save the hotel, firefighters used heavy equipment to destroy a hallway that connected Top of the World to Pepe’s. That saved the hotel, Shults said, which would caught fire if action wasn’t taken.
Dingman said the hotel suffered heavy smoke damage while the bank had minimal damage to its exterior. Crews fought the fire for roughly eight hours, he said.
Come noon Saturday, the crews were simply dousing a handful of cindering piles of rubble. The restaurant was a total loss. “There’s nothing left,” Shults said. “It’s already packed up and put in dump trucks and hauled off.”
"Nothing" is not an understatement, he added. He shuffled around the ashes of the restaurant, trying to salvage anything. No luck. Just some melted aluminum pots and pans in the rubble. Nothing else was recognizable.
The local firefighters were heroic, he said. They were able to save the hotel and the bank, and they did everything they could for Pepe’s. An on-scene firefighter told Shults the fire’s cause was likely electric and probably started in the boiler room. But the assistant fire chief said the cause is still under investigation.
Shults made a tough call to his mother, Fran Tate, a beloved Barrow resident who now lives in Anchorage, around 8 a.m. The news devastated her.
35 years of history down to ash
Tate opened Pepe’s in 1978 in a tiny, two-bedroom home she remodeled with the help of others. Then, in 1980, at the request of Top of the World, she moved the operation to the hotel. The previous managers were having a tough time turning a profit, so Pepe’s moved in, Tate said.
“There’s three dining rooms ... I don’t even cook, and I was just in shock that I could own a restaurant that big,” Tate said.
The restaurant had some tough times, “It was a difficult road to hoe.” Pepe’s would have been in operation for 35 years on Oct. 20. Now, all the history inside of the restaurant is ash, she lamented -- scrap books of all the events Pepe’s experienced over more than three decades.
In 1988, three grey whales were stranded under the ice near the town, and media from around the world descended on Barrow. And Pepe’s served all comers. The restaurant was packed with environmentalists, TV crews and government officials. “We had 11 different TV stations eating there,” Tate recalled. In the Hollywood big-screen retelling of the whale stranding, "Big Miracle," filmed in Alaska, Pepe's even played itself under a different name.
Other reminders of the good times won't be as durable as the film. Two cases packed full of pictures of famous people who had visited the restaurant, including former pro football player Richard “Dick” Butkus, as well as snapshots of locals who frequented the restaurants for years were lost in the fire.
“There was just so much history,” the owner said. “It’s unbelievable.”
The end of Taco Tuesdays?
Tate still considers herself a big part of the community of Barrow, helping out with locals in a bind and offering donations and time to youth sports. The restaurant was part of the community, too. Tate and her Pepe's cohorts donated hams to bereaved Barrow families, saving them the effort of preparing meals in a time of mourning their loved ones.
Pepe’s also catered for numerous companies that dot Alaska’s North Slope oil patch. And every Tuesday, Pepe’s discounted their tacos and all three dining rooms would be packed to capacity, 200 people in all. Those in the know call it "Taco Tuesday."
Tate's fondest memories of the restaurant were its busiest days, she said. She praised her employees, who have been phenomenal through the years, she said. Though her current workers are all out of job ... it won't be for long, she said.
Pepe’s was insured, according to Tate. And though visual reminders of the landmark’s history, countless autographs and snapshots, were consumed in the fire, the restaurant is not dead. She plans to open a new Pepe’s in the near future.
“I feel like I’m the only one that really can initiate another one,” she said. “There will be another Pepe’s. This is not the end.”
Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com