Wednesday, October 5, 2011

El Pollo Loco Leaves Atlanta as Other Chains Make a Comeback

Costa Mesa, California based El Pollo Loco has now exited the Atlanta market. Fiesta Brands, the official name of the franchise group led by veteran restaurateurs Chris Elliott and Joe Uhl, opened their first of more than 50 planned franchise units in late 2007. If my count is accurate, a total of nine eventually opened in Hiram, Marietta, Smyrna, Norcross, Chamblee, Roswell, Gainesville, Lithia Springs and Cumming. The first location in Hiram was initially said to be doing quite well but that soon changed as it, along with locations in Cumming and Marietta, were rebranded " The Crazy Chicken" due to sluggish sales. A few months later, their same locations were among the first stores to be closed when Fiesta Brands filed for liquidation under Chapter 7.

After the filing, El Pollo Loco corporate took over Atlanta operations, shuttering more than half of the existing locations and halting plans for additional stores. Among those that remained open were Chamblee, at the intersection of Clairmont Road and Buford Highway, and Marietta, on Cobb Parkway about a mile north of Cumberland Mall.

While I was a frequent diner at the Chamblee location during its first couple of years, service became inconsistent and prices began to change almost monthly, and I patronized the restaurant far less frequently.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I got to see what a typical El Pollo Loco looks like, and let me tell you, there was not much to see. Most locations in California are 10+ years old and all of the locations I noticed were "in-line" ( in the middle or endcap of a shopping center) rather than "FSU", free standing units, as all of the Atlanta area locations were. This higher end look led the Atlanta group to an identity crisis of sorts as they had basically injected themselves into the "fast casual" category and out of the "fast food" category. For those not familiar, when I say "fast casual," I'm talking Willy's Mexicana Grill, Panera Bread, Smashburger etc. Fast food, commonly considered a less expensive alternative, would include such chains as Burger King, McDonald's, KFC and Taco Bell.

The fact that the locations in Atlanta were newer was one difference, but they were also clearly more expensive too. While it was reported that build-outs per unit were to run $800K to $1.1M, a restaurant spokesperson told me the Chamblee site, and most others, came with a price tag in excess of $1.3M.

I'm definitely sad to see the entire chain leave Atlanta, but perhaps they will return in the future. As I detail below, three other similar chains have either entered or re-entered the Atlanta market recently.

Pollo Campero, with U.S headquarters in Dallas, Texas, opened its first area locations in Gainesville in December 2008, but by January 2010 was closed. Having gotten past the initial failure, Pollo Campero now operates three locations in the metro area. In Chamblee, not far from the now defunct El Pollo Loco, Pollo Campero opened in a former Popeyes last October, in addition to locations in Norcross and Roswell.

Miami-based Pollo Tropical exited the Atlanta market in the late 1990s but has recently re-entered the market. Pollo Tropical and sister restaurant concept Taco Cabana were recently spun off from former parent company, Carrol's Restaurant Group, and are now operated under the newly former Fiesta Restaurant Group. (No clear reasoning for the spin-off but Carrol's will now focus on its other restaurant business, as the largest franchisee of Burger King, with over 300 locations.) Thus far, Pollo Tropical has opened one area location, on Duluth Highway in Lawrenceville, and has plans for multiple others. They also planned to open on Roswell Road on the site of an old Brake-O in South Buckhead, but they have since abandoned those plans.

Lake Forest, California based Del Taco started with free standing units before getting in bed with Mrs. Winner's to open dual-branded locations. Neither did well and by the early 2000s, all were closed. Last year there were signs announcing a store "Coming Soon" on Fairburn Road in Douglasville but that location is apparently no longer in the works. Instead, Del Taco will re-develop a former Fazoli's restaurant on Scenic Highway in Snellville. A Del Taco corporate representative tells me this location should be open by February.

Were you a fan of El Pollo Loco? Have you given Pollo Tropical a second try and changed your mind? Do you prefer a certain local eatery over the many chain offerings? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

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30 comments:

Kapil said...

I found out last night trying to pick up a late night, post work out rotisserie chicken salad snack from the Marietta location. Super bummed. Thanks for staying on top of it though. You always know what's happening!

Kapil said...

I found out last night trying to pick up a late night, post work out rotisserie chicken salad snack from the Marietta location. Super bummed. Thanks for staying on top of it though. You always know what's happening!

Anonymous said...

Ate at the one at Buford&Clairmont twice. The mistake was going back the second time. Overpriced, dry and flavorless. By the way, that location is considered Brookhaven, not Chamblee..

Anonymous said...

Brookhaven? I can't imagine why?

Anonymous said...

Brookhaven? LOL not even close. No part of Brookhaven touches Buford Highway.

Atlantan99 said...

Hey Kapil,

Thanks for the kind words on the blog. I try to keep up with it all, but as our old mayor once said, "Everyday is an opening day in Atlanta."

Anonymous said...

Brookhaven? No. Bronxhaven? Maybe

Anonymous said...

It's actually unincorporated DeKalb
County with an Atlanta mailing address, and doesn't really have a name unless you want to call it "Buford Highway".

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see Del Taco make a comeback here. It's so much better than Taco Bell!

Anonymous said...

Didn't realize that El Pollo Loco tried to make a run of it in Georgia. Ate there once in Los Angeles a few years ago and wasn't impressed.

Interesting to see the "California chains" contemplating the Atlanta area. Never ate at Del Taco, but I'm not a fan of the "Mexican/burger" hybrid concept -- should be focused on one or the other (Have noticed that Hardee's is starting to add "Red Burrito" dishes to some of their restaurants -- similar to sibling Carl's Jr. and "Green Burrito").

If only In-N-Out came to the area. It will never happen, but one can only dream :)

Anonymous said...

El Pollo Loco should have marketed their store as a weight loss solution. Each time I ate there I was sick for several days.

Jeff said...

I like Pollo Campero (I've only been to the Roswell location), a chain that originated in Guatamela I believe. They've got great grilled chicken and yuca fries. Also a huge fan of Las Brasas in Decatur.

Anonymous said...

It's not "Buford Highway" it's "the Buford Highway" (per Wolfe's Man in Full).

I think it's a Cali thing. Since then, I put 'the' in front of all major roads and interstates...

Anonymous said...

Lived in the area 50 years. That area has always been part of Brookhaven, But now that the money has moved in down on Dresden and they want to incorporate the 'city' of Brookhaven they themselves are considering that end of Bu-Hi, Brookhaven as well. Listen when I grew up there in the 60's and 70's off of Dresden the area where El Choko PoPo was, was indeed considered Brookhaven.

Anonymous said...

In the late 80's El Pollo Loco had 2 locations in North Carolina. The food and service was great. Was excited when they came to Atlanta. Went to the Buford Hwy location several times but just wasn't that inpressed. Not surprised they left.

Anonymous said...

Del Taco is not a hybrid mexican/burger place. It is a mexican place that has a limited burger menu.

That's like saying Taco Bell is an artisan sandwich place because they have chicken flatbreads.


Keep hearing reports of there being a Del Taco in Snellville soon, but no confirmation.

I miss Del Taco and hope that those reports are true. Far and away better than Taco Bell.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, for fifty years you did not know where you lived.


"It's actually unincorporated DeKalb
County with an Atlanta mailing address, and doesn't really have a name unless you want to call it "Buford Highway"."

Anonymous said...

Since Anonymous lived there for 50 years, I'd like to hear his memories of the city of North Atlanta, Georgia.

Wikipedia says, "Brookhaven is an uncorporated community located on the western edge of DeKalb County, Georgia, United States, directly northeast of Atlanta. Most of the area was formerly incorporated as the city of North Atlanta, which disincorporated during the 1960s. The North Atlanta name has been largely forgotten and replaced by "Brookhaven", a term used both locally and regionally to refer to the area."

So who was the mayor, and when did it "disincorporate"?

Comments, anyone?

Anonymous said...

Would be a good research project for Atlantan99.

John P said...

Now that Pollo Loco is gone, hopefully this means that someone will soon open a Pollo Hermanos franchise.

Anonymous said...

I liked Pollo Loco. It was a good moderately priced alternative to the usual fast food. Sorry to see it leave the market. I have always been a Del Taco fan, but thought it suffered from the "itaintTacoBell", syndrome, that many people have. There aren't many west coast restaurant brands here in the southeast. Hope they don't close FatBurger too.

Atlantan99 said...

Hello Anon,

I too enjoyed EPL as it was a step above normal fast food offerings like Taco Bell. I hate to break it to you though that both Fatburger locations in Atlanta have closed. One on Piedmont Road in Buckhead and the other on Windy Hill in Marietta. Each has been closed for months and the Buckhead one reopened in July as Smashburger.

Thanks for your comments and for reading the blog.

Atlantan99 said...

EPL corporate tells me the chain has basically left the East Coast including new stores that opened in New Jersey.

peopleareshopping said...

Drove all the way over there from Griffin, GA with the fam & were EXTREMELY disappointed to see they'd folded.. When I think about it I did notice a decline lately but it reminded me of the location I go to when on the West Coast. The one by La Brea & Sunset is a stand-alone that is clean and impressive but it DOES have a faster drive-thru delivery system. I learned from watching them fall on their inital entry to our market.

JAM of Johns Creek said...

I first had EPL 25+ years ago in Southern California. I had hoped for such a long time that this chain would come East. Finally, it did. I went to thr Roswell location quite often, and it was very good. But, it was not as good as it used to be out West. The citrus marinade was just not as flavorful. Still, I am sad to see it go.

What we need now is Culvers--the best chain around, but sadly, not around here.

Anonymous said...

I am very disappointed that El Pollo Loco has left the Atlanta market. I am from Los Angeles and this is one of my favorite fast food eateries. Wish they would have adopted the Foster's Freeze component as well. Any way, I love the chargrilled chicken and by reading other posts I can at least try some of the other restaurants mentioned. I am also happy to hear that Del Taco may come here also. Although I was not a big fan of them back at home, it would be nice to eat there because it would feel like home.

mensajes claro said...

I love their food.

Anonymous said...

All of these business are constantly filinf because have money to burn but then runs out and halt they should follow Sbarro aproach inexpensive build inside malls with captive customers do you remember a sbarro standalone somewhere? right but they still around.

Atlantan99 said...

Hi Anon,

Overall I agree with you but Sbarro has struggled as well. The pizza company filed Chapter 11 Bankruptcy last April and emerged from it this past fall though they are not nearly the company they once were.

Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

I am a longtime fan of El Pollo Loco. First time (and every time I goto So California and occasionally El Paso Texas) about 1987 I was need of some lunch and found an ELP in El Monte California, just by accident. I fell in love with their food. Now it is a bit of a joke to my family in California. They know they are going to eat their at least once if not twice. I was in Atlanta a few years back for a trade show and I found the EPL in the old neighborhood I had lived near Marietta (now apparently closed) I was so happy! I went there and it was near closing time but I did get to eat there. It just wasn't even close IMHO to the West Coast outlets. It was reasonably clean, but it just didn't taste the same. The marinade just didn't fill the chicken like it did out west. I would say that you almost have to have the West Coast vibe to it. One thing that I think EPL needs is a major Mexican and Spanish culture to cultivate the restaurant and then the rest of the population gets into it by accident. I lived in Atlanta and I hate to say it but the fact is Southerners (and I loved living in the south) are less apt to trying something from a South of the Border culture. Sad but true in my opinion. Then you don't get the ability to cook as much food and then the quality goes down.

Also, I think that El Pollo Loco sounds better and makes more sense so to speak in Spanish than "The Crazy Chicken" Just not as appetizing in English as it sounds in Spanish. So when the food was sub-par for the chain and the name doesn't make sense or doesn't entice it's potential customers, I see it as a problem out of the gate. And as somebody stated earlier, the clientele ended up with location as a different one than what it was in So Cal. I only remember a few Free Standing outlets compared to the inline concept (much cheaper development and operating expense for the individual unit. This all comes down to how profitable, and therefor how fast they can move product and how much they can afford to keep the facilities nice. I was in one ELP in East LA and it was a strange facility re-purposed for the restaurant and it was not so clean, but the food was great. I was in a clean one in Atlanta and the prices were higher but the food was dry and bland.
Overall, I wanted to be a franchise holder at one time but I think when they went to a private equity firm for ownership and not the original family running it, it went downhill. I hope for my purposes that they recover and keep their core business in the SW healthy. "The Crazy Chicken" name has got to go.