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Posted: March 30, 2009

Prospective mediator offers food for thought on Cutler-McDaniels rift

Pete's Kitchen owner says of Cutler, ' I wish I could talk to him'

Mike Taylor

If the Denver Broncos are looking for a mediator to heal the Josh McDaniels-Jay Cutler rift, they could do worse than Greek restaurant mogul Pete Contos.

The 74-year-old owner of Pete’s Kitchen and seven other Denver eating or drinking establishments has decades of people-management experience, he’s been a Broncos season-ticket holder since 1963, and perhaps most important, he’s apparently well regarded by Cutler. At least his food is.

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“During the season he comes in probably a couple of times a month,” Contos says.

Contos also is no stranger to workplace conflicts similar in some respects to the one afflicting the Broncos. “Well, you know, I have 150 employees,” says Contos, who came to the U.S. from Greece in 1955. “Sometimes somebody doesn’t get along with the manager, or the manager doesn’t get along with the employees, and I get them together and I say, ‘Look, can you do his job?’

“‘Uh, no.’

“‘Well then, you keep your mouth shut. Do your job, and he’s going to do his job.’”

That’d be one way to handle it. Whether food would be involved in a McDaniels-Cutler mediation effort, Contos didn’t say. An employee of Pete’s Kitchen, which is open 24/7, said that a few times Contos himself has driven Cutler home to his LoDo loft after the Pro Bowl quarterback has topped off a night with meal at Pete’s. But Contos says that’s not quite true. “I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never met him,” Contos says. “He’s been coming there Fridays or Saturday nights, late. One night one of my managers took him home, downtown somewhere.”

Contos doesn’t know how Cutler found out about Pete’s Kitchen after he was drafted by the Broncos out of Vanderbilt in 2006. Probably the same as most Pete’s customers. “I guess word of mouth,” Contos says. “Everybody, I guess, knows Pete’s Kitchen.”

Among the many photos adorning the walls of Pete’s Kitchen – John Elway pictured with Contos, former linebacker Al Wilson giving two thumbs up to a meal, former Broncos’ coach Red Miller smiling, actress Drew Barrymore with Contos – are a couple photos of Cutler in front of the illuminated restaurant sign outside with a few of his offensive linemen.

“I guess he can’t go by himself, he goes with some of the linemen,” Contos says. “Elway used to do the same thing, you know. John, he was the greatest. I don’t think we can find somebody like him, but he was good for the team and for the city of Denver. Cutler can be good. He’s a young guy and he’s a bachelor. He’s going to do good if he just changes his mind a little bit.”

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A photo of Jay Cutler with former Broncos center Tom Nalen, accompanied by Cutler's autograph, hangs at the Colfax location of Pete's Kitchen and reminds Broncos fans of the good old days

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John Elway poses with Pete Contos at Pete's Kitchen

Below the photos of Cutler, it should be noted as an indication of how feelings can change, is his framed autograph and the scrawled message, “Go Broncos.” Ah, the good old days when the quarterback and team were one. The rift between McDaniels and Cutler has been going on since Feb. 28 when the Pro Bowl quarterback learned he was part of  a trade proposal that would have sent him to Tampa Bay and Matt Cassel to Denver. McDaniels had coached Cassel in New England as a Patriots assistant. The trade didn't materialize, but Cutler apparently took the trade talks as a sign of disrespect and requested a trade. He also skipped the first two weeks of the Broncos’ offseason conditioning program.

Contos’ first foray into business on East Colfax began in 1963 when he bought the Satire Lounge, which used to land acts such as the Smothers Brothers and now is a bar and Mexican restaurant. He bought Pete’s Kitchen next door 20 years ago. In all, Contos owns six restaurants, a sports bar and an ice cream shop. He still works every day. Contos’ love of football began when he would go watch his brother-in-law Ari Zavaras play for East High. Zavaras went on to become Denver’s chief of police among other high-profile positions.

At one time Contos says he owned 125 Broncos season tickets, which he says made him the third-largest season-ticket holder in Denver, but he’s since cut back to 26 tickets. He was there when the Broncos beat Green Bay in San Diego for their first Super Bowl triumph. Like the Broncos quarterback, Contos also knows what it’s like to be a celebrity, albeit on a smaller scale.

“I’m there at Pete’s sometimes at 2 or 3 o’clock Friday night or Saturday night when it’s a big crowd, and I’ll greet the people,” Contos says. “People like to see me. I shouldn’t brag, but you know, people go crazy when they see me in there.”

Asked if he thinks he could talk Cutler into relenting on his demand to be traded, Contos replied, “I wish I could talk to him. I think this new coach, he’s eager. I think he’s going to do a good job. He’s going to be good for Cutler.”

That assumes, of course, that Cutler and McDaniels are ever willingly part of the same team again. “I think they will,” says Contos, who offers some advice for Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. “I think Mr. Bowlen should grab both of them by the ear, set them in one room and close the door, and tell them what to do. Tell them to talk to each other and understand one another and take care of business and get the team together.”

One weekday afternoon in late March at Pete’s Kitchen, a customer paying his bill looked at the framed photos next to the door. “Jay Cutler!” the customer said.

“He’s the man,” said the manager, Gina, at the cash register. “Well, maybe.”

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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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