The mouth-watering smell of chicken sizzling on an open grill is still there, as are the tortillas, salsa and pinto beans that built El Pollo Loco into one of the hottest sensations to hit the fast food industry in recent years. But 1 1/2 years after the char-broiled chicken chain was bought by Denny's Inc. of coffee shop fame, El Pollo Loco is, well, differente.
To be sure, Mexican music still plays in the background at El Pollo Loco--The Crazy Chicken, in English--and employees continue to dress ranchero style in overalls, cowboy shirts and straw cowboy hats.
But the bright, Latin-inspired yellow-and-red decor has been softened with earth tones, wood veneers, Spanish-style tiles, artificial plants and the type of art posters favored by the Yuppie crowd in El Pollo Loco's quest for a broad clientele beyond the Latino community. The company logo, signs, plates, utensils and napkins are all new.
However, the core of El Pollo Loco's success, its food, is unchanged, swears President Donald Pierce, who previously was Denny's vice president of finance.
The fresh (not frozen) chickens are still marinated in the secret sauce of fruit juices, herbs and spices. Tortillas and salsa are still made fresh every day. And a tray of jalapenos still graces the serving counter.
"Denny's bought a great product and we're not going to change it," Pierce said. "We feel we have a very good fast food alternative. . . . We feel very strongly that the reason we're going to be successful is the swing toward non-fried food."
And, most important, customers line up in ever-higher numbers to sample El Pollo Loco's chicken, which originated in 1975 at a roadside operation in Guasave, Mexico, and moved north of the border in 1980. El Pollo Loco had revenues of more than $4.7 million for the year ended June 29, 1984.
La Mirada-based Denny's bought the worldwide rights to El Pollo Loco (excluding Mexico) in October, 1983, for $11.3 million. Mexico's separate El Pollo Loco operates about 100 restaurants in that country.
El Pollo Loco, now based in Santa Fe Springs, has grown from 19 Southern California restaurants in late 1983 to 29 today, plus six in Houston. Of the 29 restaurants in Southern California, 14 are company owned and 15 are franchise operations.
El Pollo Loco plans to double its size in the next year, Pierce said. In addition, the chain will move into San Diego; the first of six locations will open in April.
The new El Pollo Loco prototype restaurant is a free-standing building with a drive-through window and seating inside for about 60 people, Pierce said.
The original El Pollo Loco restaurants were store-front operations with limited seating. Those that remain have been remodeled, Pierce said.
"The corporate management of Denny's realizes the potential of El Pollo Loco," Pierce said. "We've been allocated the great bulk of expansion capital that is available," he said, but he declined to specify how much the privately held parent company is spending.