Faces of Globalization: Pollo Campero

By DAR HADDIX, UPI Business Correspondent  |  Aug. 13, 2004 at 3:02 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 13 (UPI) -- It's Sunday afternoon as cars circle Central American fast-food restaurant Pollo Campero, while an employee directs customers vying for one of the twenty-odd parking spots in the lot. The dining room is filled with Hispanic families enjoying the Guatemalan chain's chicken; other customers dash into the restaurant for takeout chicken and rush back, the familiar yellow-and-orange bags in hand, to cars that are still creeping around the building.

But this isn't Guatemala, it's Falls Church, Va., and along with other Latin American businesses from countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, and Mexico, Pollo Campero (country chicken) has jumped the Rio Grande and established itself a few miles from the U.S. capital.

And while it struts its Latin roots with Latin music, décor and a menu where Latin favorites are listed side-by-side with American standbys, it's starting to draw more and more non-Hispanic customers who work and live in the area. In fact, it's making a killing catering to local businesses whose non-Hispanic employees are crazy about Pollo Campero's cuisine, spokesman Roberto Lasala told United Press International.

"Our roots are Latin American, but our restaurant is for everybody," Lasala said. The Guatemala-based chain, launched in 1971, decided to expand north after it sold 3 million takeout orders from its Central American airport stores to travelers bound for the United States, on their way to see relatives hungry for Pollo Campero chicken. After opening its first U.S. store in Los Angeles in 2002, it now has restaurants in Houston, Washington and New York, and has about 200 restaurants in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Ecuador.

Now, this Latin American chain is accumulating fans of all nationalities. On a recent workday, fully half of the customers getting chicken to go and eating lunch in the dining room aren't Hispanic. One of those diners, Chris Lee, wolfing down chicken with several colleagues at what looked like an employee lunch outing, said the chicken surpassed his expectations the first time he tried it. While some might shy away, preferring culturally familiar fare, "I have an open mind," about trying different kinds of food, he said.

When Pollo Campero came to town last year, Latin Americans with fond memories of eating Pollo Campero chicken in their home countries waited in line for hours, as they did in other U.S. cities, to revisit the experience.

Javier Portillo, eating lunch with his wife, daughter and two sons, told United Press International he first ate at Pollo Campero in El Salvador about 10 years ago, and since the Falls Church restaurant opened, he and his young family have come in several times. "On my day off I bring the kids here," Portillo said through a translator. "The kids love the Camperitos," or chicken nuggets, he said.

Honduran immigrant Jose Luciano Flores Canales, dining with friends and fellow Hondurans Julio Vasquez and Francisco Montalban, said he also first ate at the restaurant in his home country of Honduras.

But Latin American nationals aren't the only ones that make a beeline to the restaurants when they open in the United States -- U.S. residents that found Pollo Campero while traveling in Latin American countries also frequent its U.S. locations.

The restaurant walks a fine culinary line to please its diverse clientele. Along with typical American drinks like cola, lemon-lime, root beer and iced tea are Latin flavors like tamarindo, a fruity drink, and horchata, a milky sweet drink often served at kids' birthday parties in Latin America. Side dishes range from mashed potatoes and french fries to rice or beans. One dessert selection is flan, a custard dish bathed in caramel sauce.

Lasala refers to all the jumping through cultural hoops the chain has done to establish itself in the United States as moving "from Sanchez to Sanchez to Smith."

"The 'first Sanchez' is the Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrant who has come here from Guatemala and El Salvador, and knows Pollo Campero restaurant very well," he said. "The 'second Sanchez' would be their children who were born here or came here very early -- or those who come from Latin America but from a country that doesn't have Pollo Campero -- for instance, Bolivia and Columbia," he said. "The 'Smiths' are everyone else."

"Our initial base is reached with people from El Salvador and Guatemala, but Pollo Campero is not exclusive to them by any means. We're a chain that is here to satisfy the needs of the rest of the Latin American community as well as others."

Lasala pointed out that the chicken served in the U.S. locations isn't spicy -- though many people think all Latin American food is spicy -- so that shouldn't deter people from trying it. But for those who do like spicy food, there's a salsa bar where customers can season their food to their liking.

The restaurant also made a point of hiring cashiers that speak both English as well as Spanish, he said.

But Pollo Campero hardly downplays its Latin roots. The Falls Church and Herndon locations were chosen in part because of the area's large Hispanic populations. On a Sunday afternoon, it is nearly all Latin American families that fill the sit-down dining area or line up for takeout. Bouncy Latin music fills the restaurant, and murals in Spanish grace the walls, as well as a timeline of Latino achievements in the United States during the last century -- these in English. "Proud to be Latino," it concludes.

And, the two Virginia restaurants are also sponsoring the El Salvador - Guatemala soccer championship, which, because of the area's large Latin population, is to be held in RFK Stadium.

Finding the Washington area to its liking, the chain is planning to open two more restaurants this year in the Washington metro area -- one in Langley Park, Md. in October, and one in Wheaton, Md. in December.

Faces of Globalization -- The above piece by UPI Correspondent Dar Haddix is part 21 of a half-year series by United Press International which focuses each week on the human face of globalization in locales ranging from India to the United States. The series looks at the complex array of social and economic issues facing workers, managers, students and others, who have been affected by the growing worldwide investment, trade and technological interconnections that have come to be known as globalization.

Series edited by T.K. Maloy, UPI Deputy Business Editor. (tmaloy@upi.com)

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