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A Greeley favorite

© The Greeley Tribune, March 24, 2002

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by Bill Jackson, jackson@greeleytrib.com

When Roger and Sue Albert met as students at the University of Northern Colorado, perhaps the last thing they saw themselves doing was owning and operating a restaurant together.

"She majored in psychology. I majored in beer," he said.That was nearly 30 years ago.

But this month the two are celebrating their 20th anniversary of operating Fat Albert's in Cottonwood Square, which has become one of Greeley's favorite eateries and watering holes. Dave Baker has been a steady customer at the restaurant since 1992. Retired and living by himself, Baker can be found most evenings sitting at the bar, eating his dinner, bantering with the waitresses and passing out balloons to kids when the place gets busy.

"I only live a few blocks away and this is like a community. I fix my own breakfast, when I eat one, and my own lunch. But this is where I eat dinner and enjoy the company," Baker said.

Baker is one of several regulars the restaurant has had over the years, Roger said. "We call him our Norm, even though he doesn't drink," Roger said, referring to one of the characters on the television show "Cheers."

"Or balloon man. That's what I prefer," Baker said, adding he keeps in touch with several of the waitresses and exchanges Christmas cards with many of them each year.

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Most of the waitresses are college students, which results in a constant turnover. "We have 50 employees, but I send out 200 W2 forms every year," Roger said.

Fat Albert's is a restaurant that came close to never happening, the Alberts said. And it never would have happened without the help of John Todd, who was the developer of Cottonwood Square and owner of the Teller, which was the first restaurant in the Fat Albert's location.

Todd opened the Teller in 1981 as a sort of test drive for what would become Potato Brumbaugh's, long considered Greeley's top fine-dining establishment. But in 1981, the building that now houses Potato's, was not yet built in the shopping center.

"I had worked my way through college working at the old Moot House," Sue said. "I was a waitress, a bartender, office manager and manager. After managing for five years, I knew I wanted to do more."

By that time, Sue and Roger were married, having met at the Plantation, where he worked as a bartender. They graduated from UNC in 1974, she with her psychology degree and he with a degree in radio, television and journalism.

"I was going to be a reporter, so while I was waiting for that first big reporting job to come along, I continued as a bartender down at the old, not the new, Plantation," he said.

While working there, he became acquainted with a Colorado State Patrol trooper, who would come in after he got off duty. After talking with the trooper, Roger decided he wanted to work for the state patrol, too.

So he applied -- four times in four years. He finally was told that what he needed was experience. So he applied at the Weld County Sheriff's Office, at the Greeley Police Department and went to the police academy. The day he graduated, he got a job offer from the Greeley police -- and the state patrol.

"To go with the patrol, I would have had to move and I didn't want to do that. So I joined the police department," he said. Had he stayed with the force, he could now be retired.

"I've thought of that, often," he said. "But nobody has shot at me in the past 20 years."

So with Roger working as a police officer and Sue at the Moot House, enter Todd and the Teller.

"He (Todd) had brought a deli manager from Toddys to manage the Teller and that just didn't work out," Roger said.

So when Todd closed the restaurant in mid-1981, Sue and two partners from the Moot House approached him about selling the business.

"He wanted about $159,000 more than we had in cash and collateral at the time," Roger said. But they persisted and finally worked out a lease-buy option with Todd in December of that year. T hey opened the restaurant in March, near St. Patrick's Day, which has become the official anniversary of Fat Albert's -- or Fat Al's as it is known by many of its patrons.

"Without the kindness and generosity of John Todd, this would have never happened. He decided to stick with a couple of kids and see what they could do," Sue said.

Roger described how the name came about: His last name is Albert, and Fat Albert was a favorite Bill Cosby character of the time.

When patrons walk into the restaurant, they are greeted by a green clock that counts down the days remaining until the next St. Patrick's Day, which Fat Albert's celebrates in style.

There are also signed photographs of the Navy's Blue Angels hanging in the entrance. Sue's brother, Charlie, wanted to be a Blue Angel, but never made it. He was going to go into partnership with Roger and Sue at a restaurant they later opened in downtown Greeley, but he was killed in a plane crash. So they named the downtown restaurant Charlie's in his honor.

"We had some friends whose son was a member of the support team of the Blue Angels who got us those photos. The (C-130 Hercules) support plane is also called Fat Al," Sue said.

Once the restaurant was up and running, Sue was spending 100 hours a week trying to keep it going, while Roger would come in early in the morning to clean up before going on to his police duties.

He finally had to take a leave of absence to help with the operation and when the business was established he planned to go back to the police department. But the city decided there was a conflict of interest, since Sue had a liquor license, so Roger and Sue took over the operation of the restaurant full time.

A sandwich, the Monte Cristo, and homemade pies, which Sue insisted the restaurant offer, have become the restaurant's trademarks.

"The Monte Cristo is a sandwich that's been around forever and can be served a lot of different ways," Sue said.

But Fat Albert's version came about when she was at a restaurant trade show just before opening Fat Albert's and happened on a woman who had a special tempura recipe.

"So I took the Monte Cristo, dipped it in that tempura and deep fried it. We've sold a bunch of them since then. It's always been our No. 1 seller," Sue said.

The original pie bakers -- there are now five, counting Sue -- were a mother-daughter team.

"They came in for an interview, and Roger told them to go home, bake a pie and come back," Sue said.

"They came back with eight or 10 pieces of different pies in one dish. After about three bites, I hired them. Shortest interview I ever did," Roger said.

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1717 23rd Avenue • Greeley • Colorado • 80634
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