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Popular Latin Pollo Chain Heads to L.A.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each time any of his friends plan a visit to El Salvador, Henry Aguilar places his to-go order. They better bring him back some chicken or things could get ugly.

“Trajiste pollo?” he asks as soon as they return to Los Angeles. “Did you bring chicken?” Everyone knows he’s talking about Pollo Campero, fried and rotisserie-style chicken with a loyal following throughout Latin America, especially in El Salvador and Guatemala.

“It is the tastiest thing there can be. I used to walk to the Pollo Campero [in El Salvador] and from three or four blocks away you could [smell] the aromas. There’s nothing like it. I can’t describe the flavor, but it’s my passion.”

Owners of Los Angeles’ La Curacao department store chain are counting on the same feverish cravings for the marinated chicken as they open the first Pollo Campero restaurant in the United States later this month inside their Pico-Union district store.

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Adir Restaurants, a subsidiary of Adir Holding Co., which also owns La Curacao, has purchased a franchisee license for Pollo Campero restaurants from Pollo Campero International, the restaurant chain’s Guatemala City-based parent. Terms were not disclosed.

By May the company plans to open restaurants inside the other La Curacao stores in Huntington Park, South Gate and Panorama City under a joint venture with Pollo Campero, said Jerry Azarkman, who controls Adir Holding with his brother Ron Azarkman.

La Curacao, catering almost exclusively to the Southland’s Latino immigrant communities, has tapped into an often-ignored and misunderstood customer base to build a $100-million retail chain. The stores offer credit to people with no credit history and operate a type of export program that allows customers to purchase merchandise for relatives in their home countries.

Now, La Curacao is hoping to extend its relationship with the region’s Central Americans by importing what is arguably more than a culinary brand name but a cultural phenomenon.

On every Los Angeles-bound flight from San Salvador and Guatemala City, passengers carry Pollo Campero’s trademark orange boxes filled with chicken pieces like so much precious cargo to share with friends and relatives. Pollo Campero estimates it sells more than 3 million to-go orders annually through outlets at Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City and San Salvador International Airport.

News that a Pollo Campero restaurant will be opening in downtown Los Angeles has La Curacao fielding hundreds of phone calls each day, company spokesman Darrell Alatorre said. An ad in a local Spanish-language publication to recruit employees for the first restaurant brought in more than 900 applications, the company said.

“Pollo Campero means a lot to Central Americans and to the Mexican community here. It’s part of the culture,” Azarkman said. “The Campero phenomenon is very much more than food ... it’s emotional. This is the kind of company we want to work with that can bring a piece of their countries to [our customers].”

Founded in 1971, Pollo Campero International, with $300 million in annual revenue, has 150 locations spread throughout Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Ecuador that serve 75 million customers a year. To meet the demand of patrons traveling between Latin America and the U.S., the restaurant operator opened locations at the international airports in Guatemala City and San Salvador.

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“Our airports send a lot of chicken to Los Angeles,” said Roberto Denegri, Pollo Campero’s vice president. “Those planes, on any flight, are full of chicken.”

Over the next five years, Adir Restaurants plans to begin franchising Pollo Campero restaurants elsewhere in California, throughout the Southwest and Pacific Northwest, Azarkman said.

In the meantime, he said scouts are looking for real estate for five stand-alone Pollo Campero restaurants the company plans to open in Los Angeles by the end of the year, all in areas with heavy concentrations of Latinos.

Pollo Campero will encounter stiff competition from well-established chicken eateries, said restaurant consultant Rob Sandelman. The limited name awareness of Pollo Campero chicken may help it in a highly targeted market, but a different strategy would be necessary to extend the brand into the mainstream market.

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“It’s a very competitive market,” he said, pointing to fast-food chains El Pollo Loco, Koo Koo Roo, Baja Fresh and Rubio’s.

“Unless they have a point of difference in variety or price to their advantage, it’s going to be difficult to generate interest,” said Sandelman, president of Villa Park-based market research firm Sandelman & Associates. “Most people are not willing to drive too far for a quick meal.”

El Pollo Loco is an example of an established chain that counts on the Latino market to succeed. About half the Irvine-based restaurant operator’s sales come from its Latino clientele, said company spokeswoman Julie Weeks.

“The quick-service segment of the restaurant industry is very competitive and has been for many years. It’s the nature of the business we’re in,” Weeks said. As for competition from a potential new chain, she said El Pollo Loco hopes to keep attracting customers with its flame-broiled chicken.

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What makes Pollo Campero’s chicken special, its loyalists say, is its flavor and spices. But the company divulges little about the ingredients except to say that it is marinated in a special concoction over two days.

Pollo Campero will begin a Spanish-language ad campaign on television after the first few restaurants open, said Ricardo Vasquez, director of Pollo Campero operations for Adir Restaurants."Ay que rico! [How tasty!]” Pollo Campero fan Aguilar said when he heard the chicken would soon be available in Los Angeles. He said he plans to be one of the first in line.


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