Pepito’s looks for an exit

Pamela Senkyr takes orders at Pepito’s.

The phone at Pepito’s rings all day with questions about the restaurant’s future.

“Keep coming in until you hear different,” day host Vicki Jones recently told a customer on the phone.

After falling behind on tax payments and becoming homebound with pulmonary fibrosis, Pepito’s owner Joe Minjares, age 71, said it’s time to close.

“It’s closing a pretty important chapter of our lives,” he said. “I don’t even want to say bittersweet. There is nothing sweet about it for me; there is not much I can do I guess. When you fall behind in your taxes, there is no way of catching up.”

He said he’s talking to prospective buyers of the property at 4820 Chicago Ave., which includes both the restaurant and Parkway Theater. Minjares said the group he’s currently talking to would operate a theater and restaurant there, though it wouldn’t be Pepito’s.

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Minjares said many factors have contributed to the financial issues.

“Basically we were too big,” he said. “…We’re forcing ourselves to downsize.”

Because the business fell behind on tax payments, the restaurant was required to stop serving alcohol, immediately resulting in a substantial sales loss, said Minjares’ daugher Pamela Senkyr.

Senkyr said anything can still happen, but it’s likely the restaurant will close.

“It’s more complicated than what people think,” she said.

She said Minjares doesn’t want to saddle the family with debt, and he doesn’t want to ask the community to fundraise only to fall into the same financial trap in the future. She said Minjares typically worked at the restaurant all the time, and continued to work as he became sick. But as his oxygen levels dropped and he was increasingly short of breath, he made the difficult decision to stay home. The business doesn’t function the same without him running it, she said.

“This is his place, this is his baby, all of us kids grew up here,” she said.

Minjares said he hopes the Pepito’s name will stay alive in the deli run by his children at 4624 Nicollet Ave. Senkyr said it’s also possible the siblings would make a fresh start with a new restaurant together.

“In the restaurant business, you’re lucky if you last two years. We lasted 46. I don’t see that as failing,” Minjares said.

Minjares married his wife Sue in high school (no one thought it would last and they’ve been married 53 years, he said) and he left the Army at age 22 with four young children at the time. People told him he should find a secure job to support his family.

“I couldn’t do that,” he said. “I was too independent.”

When he took over a little tavern in 1971, he said the restaurant met with some resistance.

“We started serving Mexican food. Most people had never heard of it, never tasted it,” he said. “They were afraid of it. It started slow, and then all at once it just exploded.”

He came from a family of farm workers, he said.

“This was our first shot at the American dream,” he said. “It felt good.”

Pepito’s has become famous for its annual free Thanksgiving dinner, where nonprofit partners help serve up to 2,500 people.

“I don’t have to be thanked for that,” he said. “You get the joy of doing them. … I was thanked a million-fold on that.”

The Thanksgiving tradition started with his own large family, who would gather at the restaurant to celebrate the holiday.

“We have a big family, so it looked like we were open for business,” he said. “People would knock on the door and my mother would say, let them in. We realized so many people are out there in the cold.”

Minjares said his future is gray, but he expects to rest after a sale of the building.

“I want to relax a little bit. I want to get that operation, get that new lung, and hopefully spend some time with my sweetheart here,” he said.