From Guatemala with Love Pollo Campero expands into an enthusiastic Chicago market with a new service style and a few menu additions.
By Lisa Bertagnoli
Take an online tour of Pollo Campero Photography by John Payne
About a year and a half ago, a rumor rushed through Chicago’s Guatemalan community that Pollo Campero, the Guatemala-based fried-chicken chain, was planning to open in Chicago.
On July 29, the rumor came true when Pollo Campero opened a 3,500-square-foot, freestanding restaurant on the city’s northwest side. A live marimba band entertained Campero fans, who waited hours for the marinated and battered fried chicken that some claim is addictive. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Larry Levy, founder and CEO of Levy Family Partners, which owns the rights to expand Pollo Campero in Illinois, Wisconsin and Florida.
Those who lined up and managed to get in (hundreds were turned away) found that the Chicago location looks pretty much the same as the other 200 Pollo Campero restaurants dotting Latin America and the United States. Bright red tabletops and lime-green pendant lights add punch to the soft yellow covering the walls and ceiling. High ceilings and transparent glass room dividers etched with the chain’s mascot chicken give the open dining room a bright and airy feeling. A photo mural of an ancient pyramid and other scenes from Guatemala serves as the restaurant’s focal point.
Levy Family Partners, Chicago
July 29, 2005
Design Forum, Dayton, Ohio
3,500 square feet
96 inside, 25 on a patio
$5 to $6
$4 million (company estimate)
5 or 6 in 2006
The look for all U.S. stores combines “a more distinctive personality reflecting Guatemalan roots, plus a progressive personality that’s appealing to a broad section of consumers,” says Bruce Dybvad, president of Design Forum, the Dayton, Ohio-based restaurant-design firm that created the stateside prototype for Pollo Campero. The chain has 21 U.S. locations, in Los Angeles (the country’s first Campero, with an April 2002 opening), Houston, New York and Washington, D.C.
“It’s very important that [the look] come off as genuine in respect to its Guatemalan origins,” Dybvad says, pointing to the mural as a prime example of a “genuine” feature. “We have some liberty, but we still have to respect the origins.”
One customer, however, questions the authenticity of the parrot in the mural. “They should have drawn the quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala,” says Erick Ortiz, who waited for three hours to buy a three-piece chicken meal with pinto beans and mashed potatoes. Dybvad says the parrot is indigenous to Guatemala.
Pollo with a Twist
Diners encountered a few differences from the other U.S. units. In a first for the chain, the Chicago location offers limited service, not full table service. In another first, it has a drive-thru lane, the asphalt of which is decorated with giant chicken footprints. Yet another first: The restaurant has a salsa bar stocked with five varieties of salsa.
Ortiz, who used to bring Pollo Campero chicken to Chicago from Guatemala to share with hungry relatives, misses the full-service style of the Camperos in Guatemala, but he likes the drive-thru.
The menu differs a bit as well. It offers pinto beans instead of the traditional Guatemalan black beans, pan-Latin side dishes such as tostones (mashed and fried green plantains), fried plantains, and chicken and rice-and-beans burritos. “We wanted to create a big crossover with other Latin ethnic groups and Caucasian-American groups,” Levy says.
Levy hopes that the American-style service and pan-Latin menu additions will help Campero earn a following not just among Guatemalans but among other Hispanic groups as well as African-Americans. Levy Family Partners’ second site will be located in Chicago’s heavily Hispanic Little Village neighborhood. “It has lots of parking,” he says. The company plans to open three units in the next nine months.
3 Piece Meal: thigh, leg and wing, two side orders, three tortillas, biscuit or roll, $6.79
Kids Meal: drumstick, french fries, small drink and prize, $2.99
Cool Chicken Burrito, $2.99 regular, $4.99 grande
Campero Cole Slaw, $1.09 single, $2.99 family
Tostones: mashed and fried green plantains, $1.09 single, $2.99 family
Coconut Pudding, $1.35
Mango Flan, $1.35
Horchata: sweet rice drink, $1.69 regular, $2.09 large
Levy discovered Pollo Campero several years ago while driving in Los Angeles. “I would see a huge line on Olympic Boulevard—I thought I was passing an immigration office,” he says.
Levy realized that the line belonged to a restaurant when he read an article about the success of the Pollo Campero store on Olympic Boulevard; a bit of research revealed that the chain was seeking more U.S. franchisees. Andy Florsheim, president and CEO of Pollo Campero in Illinois, Wisconsin and Florida, says four or five restaurant companies vied for Pollo Campero franchise rights in the Chicago area.
In the Works
According to Florsheim, the existing restaurant needs a few adjustments. In the kitchen, the center island should be bigger to hold the expanded menu of side dishes, and the machine that holds the tropical drinks (horchata, maranon and tamarindo) should be moved into customers’ view. Separate lines for dine-in and takeout customers will help speed service, he adds.
But for now, customers don’t seem to mind waiting. From the looks of the lines forming outside even at 8 a.m. on a Monday, one gets the idea that Pollo Campero could serve chicken from a cardboard box and still make a mint.
While at press time it was too early to estimate check averages or unit volume, Levy sounds optimistic, saying that the airport locations in Guatamala gross upwards of $4 million a year, even with menu prices much lower than in the States.
“People have a passion for the brand,” Levy says. “They own it.”