Latin American franchise spices up fast-food America

Five-hour waits at the Houston opening of Pollo Campero may show the growing buying power of Hispanic Americans.

When Zoila Monge vacationed in her native Guatemala this summer, the only thing her Houston relatives asked her to bring them was chicken.

Not just any chicken. Pollo Campero chicken - a Guatemalan fast-food delicacy that, for Central Americans, rivals the Krispy Kreme doughnut craze.

So before she boarded her plane back to Texas, Ms. Monge purchased 20 pieces from a franchise in the Guatemala City airport and became one of many passengers with fragrant boxes of chicken stuffed under seats, tucked in overhead compartments, and laid gently on laps.

"It's like a taste of home," says Monge. "Growing up, every time we had extra money or it was someone's birthday, we'd head for Pollo Campero."

But now, she and her family don't have to fly to Guatemala when they have a hankering for home. The newest Pollo Campero opened last weekend in Houston to traffic jams, lines snaking down the street, and five-hour waits.

But its sensational opening symbolizes more than just nostalgia. It points up the rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the US, and the enormous buying power that goes along with it. Company officials also hope that Pollo Campero satisfies many Americans' growing appetite for fast-food alternatives to burgers and fries.

Houston is the second US city to open one of the restaurants, behind Los Angeles, which opened three franchises earlier this year. Business there was so bustling in opening weeks, the restaurants had to cut off the line at 6 p.m. to make the midnight closing. The first franchise reached $1 million in sales in just seven weeks - unheard of in the fast-food industry.

"I've never seen lines like this, and I've been doing this for 20 years," says Saul Adelsberg, senior vice president of sales at Sysco Food Services in Los Angeles. "It's truly a phenomenon."

Mr. Adelsberg's food-distribution company provides Pollo Campero with chicken and other ingredients. While other chicken restaurants get deliveries once or twice a week, he says he sends trucks to Pollo Campero restaurants four days a week.

Back in Houston, as salsa music blares over loudspeakers and yellow balloons dot the parking lot, the smell of fried chicken fills the air. Some hungry customers have been in line since 6 a.m.

Archibald Juarez is one of those chicken fanatics. This Guatemalan has been in line for about 3-1/2 hours and estimates he has another 1-1/2 to go before his taste buds will be appeased.

"It's the flavor," says Mr. Juarez, smiling in the noonday sun. "With Kentucky Fried Chicken, you throw the bones away when you're done eating. Not with Pollo Campero. You chew the bones because that's where the flavor is."

While the company is tight-lipped about its recipes, it does say the secret is in its two-day marinade and distinct spices.

Experts say the task now is to attract customers who did not grow up eating Pollo Campero.

"I think it has a very good chance of being widely successful. They are choosing their markets wisely," says Greg Sanders, editor of QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) magazine in Durham, N.C.

The chicken madness began in 1971, when the first store opened in Guatemala. Since then, more than 150 franchises have opened across Latin America - including branches in the Guatemala City and San Salvador airports, so travelers can satisfy their families' cravings back home. In fact, it became so common for flights to the United States to be filled with these fried feasts that pilots and passengers began complaining of the constant smell.

Still, some 300 million pieces of chicken are flown back to the US yearly - strong evidence of Central Americans' love for the product. "It's quite a success story in Central America," says Marcel Portmann, vice president of global marketing and development at the International Franchise Association in Washington.

He says Pollo Campero's success is being looked at closely by other Latin American companies looking to break into the burgeoning Hispanic market in the US.

Indeed, according to research at the University of Georgia, Hispanic buying power will have increased from $223 billion in 1990 to $580 billion in 2002 and $926 billion in 2007.

Back in Houston, excitement is building as patient customers edge closer to Pollo Campero's front door.

Monge's teenage son, Hamilton, has been in line for two hours already, but says he's willing to wait as long as it takes. "It's just really good chicken," he says.

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