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Guatemalan Chicken Restaurant a Hit With US Latinos - 2003-10-30


The greater Washington area is home to more than 200,000 people of Latin American descent, many of whom came to the United States from Central America. For them, feeling close to home can be a challenge. But a well-known Central American fast-food chain has arrived in the Washington area. Immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and elsewhere have been flocking to the restaurant, hungry for a taste of home.

From early morning to late at night, throngs of people line up along a major thoroughfare in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. But what are they waiting for? An appearance by a rock star? A famous actor? A chance to win a new car?

No. Fried chicken.

But not just any fried chicken. Pollo Campero, or "Country Chicken," a Guatemala-based chain with restaurants throughout Central America and Mexico, and now in selected regions of the United States. This establishment opened in September and has been mobbed ever since, by the region's large Central American population.

A Salvadoran immigrant who identifies himself as Daniel stands in line with his two-year-old daughter.

He says,"the flavor of the chicken is great, Salvadorans used to eat it in our home country, and we really like it."

The first battle customers face is to find parking for their cars, either in a perpetually-packed lot or the surrounding neighborhood. Then, they wait in line for up to two hours just to get to the front door. From there, they are either shuttled to another long line for take-out orders or to a cashier, where they place orders before being seated at a table.

This level of coordination is needed to manage what would otherwise be utter chaos created by an unending crush of customers,4,000 to 5,000 a day. To keep up with demand, an astounding 2,400 chickens are prepared daily, according to manager Roberto Lasala.

"We were expecting a lot of people to come, but really this has exceeded our expectations. It is incredible," he said.

But is chicken, any chicken, worth a two-hour wait? Absolutely, say customers, including one who preferred not to be identified. She says, when she found out a Pollo Campero had opened, she said, 'Let us go, no matter how long we have to wait.' She says the chicken is phenomenal, super-delicious, and that she is very happy to have a Pollo Campero nearby.

Pollo Campero does not reveal the "secret" of its recipe for fried chicken. But Manager Roberto Lasala says he is well aware that, in the United States, Pollo Campero is selling more than food; it is selling a slice of "home" to people living far from the lands of their birth.

"It is a nostalgia factor," said Roberto Lasala. "They are homesick. It [the chicken] reminds them of home. It reminds them of good times. It makes them proud to see that people in Central America can cook really good chicken, and they are proud to show it off in the United States."

The Central American corporation does not downplay its origins while attempting to get a foothold in the U.S. market. In addition to keeping its Spanish name, Pollo Campero proudly trumpets that it is a Latin American enterprise to all who enter.

The walls are plastered with slogans like: "Proud to be Latino" and "Our land, our people, our pride." One wall lists prominent people of Hispanic descent in the United States and their contributions to the nation.

But not everyone is thrilled by Pollo Campero's success, which has caused traffic, congestion, and demand for parking to surge in the surrounding neighborhood.

Among those complaining is retiree Billy Edwards, whose house stands less than 100 meters from Pollo Campero.

"It has been terrible," he complained. "You cannot get in or out of your driveway. People park in your driveway and [leave] all their trash. It has been a nightmare. They have no respect for the neighborhood."

Manager Roberto Lasala says every effort has been made to address the community's concerns.

"We have hired off-duty police officers to help us direct traffic," he said. "A security company designed the way we control the crowds. We have posted signs telling people where to park and not to park. Our attitude is to be as good a neighbor as possible."

Mr. Lasala says Pollo Campero is, in his words, here to stay. The company hopes to expand its customer base beyond the Latin American immigrant community and appeal to the broader American public.

Some curious non-Latin Americans, like car salesman Jody Johnson, are giving Pollo Campero a try.

"It is just really good chicken," said Jody Jihnson. "It smells really, really good. It is probably the best chicken I have ever had."

For decades, U.S.-based fast food chains have expanded into new markets abroad. Now, with a growing U.S. immigrant population, there is an opening for foreign chains to do the same in the United States. Pollo Campero has seized the opportunity and appears to be making the most of it.

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