El Pollo Loco Looks for a President, Lands a Whopper : Restaurants: New leader sees chance for chain to grow beyond its base in Western states.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John A. Romandetti, a restaurant industry executive who spent the past 14 years with Burger King Corp. has been named president of El Pollo Loco, the company said Friday.

Romandetti, 45, served as vice president of operations for 1,300 of Burger King's franchised restaurants in several Western states, including California. Romandetti, who was responsible for sales, operations and training for Burger King's western region, said he's aware of the intense competition in Southern California, where most of El Pollo Loco's restaurants are clustered.

"Regardless of whether it's burgers or chicken, you've got a lot of quick-service restaurants all competing for the same customer dollar," Romandetti said. "And, at the end of the day, the restaurant with the greatest value and highest quality is going to win."

Flagstar Companies Inc., El Pollo Loco's Spartanburg, S.C.-based parent company, in the past has signaled its desire to expand the Irvine-based operator of 217 company-owned and franchised restaurants in California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Mexico. And, Romandetti said Friday that growth is in the cards: "We've got a terrific brand, and with franchising, we've got an opportunity to grow."

Romandetti, who will report to work on Monday at El Pollo Loco's Irvine headquarters, said it's too early to detail his plans for the chain.

Industry analysts say El Pollo Loco must continue to spend heavily on a restaurant renovation program that it began in 1994. El Pollo Loco also must deal with increased pressure from burger chains that are benefiting from unusually stable beef prices.

And, El Pollo Loco is expected to keep experimenting with locations that offer two well-known brands under one roof. In the past year, for example, El Pollo Loco has added Fosters Freeze dessert products at several of its locations.

Romandetti fills the office left vacant in September when Raymond J. Perry left El Pollo Loco to become chief operating officer of Hardee's Food Systems in Rocky Mount, N.C. Perry had previously served as executive vice president of the Carl's Jr. chain, and briefly owned the Kelly's Coffee and Fudge Factory chain.

El Pollo Loco reported third-quarter operating income of $3.9 million, a 30% increase from the $3 million posted a year ago. Revenue, however, declined by 7% to $32.4 million from $34.8 million.

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