It was the place you passed on your way to somewhere else, maybe pondered while marking time at the light at S. Academy and Hancock in Colorado Springs.
A squat square with 80s fast food bones, perched a sandwich-toss from two major thoroughfares (“excellent signage and traffic!”) but accessible by car only via a snaky back route through a church parking lot, down a street that doesn’t have a name because it’s not technically a street.
Wasn’t it a gyro joint before?
I remember tacos. And, Chinese food. And burgers. (All true).
The history of 3008 S. Academy Blvd. is a global culinary crawl of startup hopes, good food, and vacancy. Then one day in early 2021, you see the building’s got fresh paint and a new sign, and can’t help but wonder: Who would open up a restaurant there, especially at a time like this?
Twenty-nine-year-old former firefighter Robert Felipe Velasquez is that guy. He knows he’s facing an uphill battle, but he also knows what he’s fighting for: family and future.
“Yeah, it’s a bit of a pickle to get in here … but God has been good to us. We continue to get faithful people who were with us when we were in the truck, and still come out to support us,” he said in early March, a month after transitioning Felipe’s 109 from a food truck operation to its new brick-and-mortar base.
Failure is a worry, certainly, but it’s not an option.
“When all the other doors are closed and you only have one path you can take, you just walk through the door believing you’ll be able to make it,” he said. “You have to believe that the American dream is going to happen, someway or somehow, and we’re just going to have to figure it out.”
It’s important to know where you’re going, even if you’re not sure how to get there — or what there will look like once you arrive. For Robert Velasquez, the destination was always “something entrepreneurial, something successful,” said his wife, Jenna.
“He’s always been very generous, kind, really funny — and also really optimistic,” Jenna said. Those qualities were what first drew her to her future husband when the two met and became friends at church, as teens. After eight years of marriage and three kids, though, Robert’s world-class optimism has led to some tough, and emotional, conversations.
“He really is a dreamer. Daily, he’s, like, ‘Oh, we could do this,’ or ‘This would be such a great invention or this is such a great business idea ….’ He doesn’t like being told ‘no,’” said Jenna, who added that, by contrast, she tends to live in the moment and get overwhelmed thinking about what’s to come. “I think we complement each other nicely. My job is to support him but say, ‘Those are great ideas but maybe you shouldn’t do them all.’”
Growing up in the Springs, Robert and his sister, Shanity, had talked about opening a restaurant with their grandmother, Evelyn Tilden, a naturally-gifted chef who’d gone to culinary school but ultimately had to abandon the calling. When he was 18, Robert and Evelyn even started a grassroots burrito business, making the wraps and selling them to office workers in businesses around the Springs.
The experience got his entrepreneurial juices flowing, but after he graduated from high school in 2010, a different burning passion was at the top of his list.
“One of the things I heard growing up was, ‘I let go of my dreams to raise you,’” he said. “I always knew I wanted to be a firefighter….and if I didn’t follow my dreams, what am I supposed to say to my own children?”
Robert and Jenna married in 2013, and Charlotte was born late that December. Robert had been working in construction and they’d been saving up their money to buy a house. The following year, he applied and was accepted into the City of Fountain’s eight-month Fire Academy. He graduated in October 2016 and went straight into EMT training. He was wrapping up that program in May, 2017, when baby Leo arrived.
All those plans — and the world as he knew it — changed forever.
“Leo had all these complications and was in and out of the hospital for about eight months, and three months solid during the summer,” said Robert, whose infant son wasn’t gaining weight and was struggling to breathe. “He was choking and turning blue. And we didn’t know what was wrong. No one did.”
It would be almost two years before Leo received an official diagnosis: a rare syndrome caused by a genetic mutation that causes microcephaly, and severe developmental and neurological delays. Leo also suffered a brain injury at birth that left him with cerebral palsy and vision impairment.
His and Jenna’s lives now revolved around caring for a severely ill special needs child. Dream jobs would have to wait, for now.
“The fire department was amazing to us, with (colleagues) donating sick hours to us while he was in the hospital, so we could continue to get paid,” Robert said. “The fire department was such a dream for me to do, and it was a dream that came true.”
It was a dream that wasn’t meant to last. Dealing with medical trauma at home and again at work would soon prove to be too much.
“He had a really hard time going back and getting into the groove of that after our son,” Jenna said. “He’s always had such a big heart and is kind to everybody. He just…