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Globalization's McBacklash

Guatemala’s Pollo Campero has American fast-food franchises running scared

Latin American flavors aren't the only ones in vogue. Taiwanese tapioca tea franchises are bubbling up all over the country, and an Indian bakery is coming on strong with halal pizzas (see the future installments of this series for more information on these phenomena). Pho Cong Ly, the Vietnamese noodle franchise that was founded by an undercapitalized Vietnamese immigrant in Southern California, now boasts more than 40 locations in the United States and Canada, and a nearly equal number in Asia.

After years of watching the spread of McDonald's and KFCs in their homelands, restaurant chains from the rest of the world are now invading the United States. Their revenge is delicious.


A taste of home: Central American natives will stand in line for hours for Pollo Campero's fried chicken.
Troy Fields
A taste of home: Central American natives will stand in line for hours for Pollo Campero's fried chicken.

Location Info

Map

Pollo Campero

5616 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77081

Category: Restaurant > Central American

Region: Outer Loop - SW

Details

713-395-0664. Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Two pieces with sides: $4.99
Eight pieces with sides: $13.99
12 pieces with sides: $20.99
16 pieces with sides: $26.99

Part of the Foreign Franchise Invasion series

5616 Bellaire Boulevard

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So, is Pollo Campero's chicken worth the long wait?

That depends on who you are. An objective taste test would reveal that you can get better chicken at homegrown Houston institutions like Frenchy's, the Creole chicken shack in the Third Ward where African-Americans have been waiting in line for hot fried chicken night and day since 1969. (No TV crews so far.) But if you're Hispanic or love to eat that way, the salsas, tortillas and beans at Pollo Campero make it more attractive. And if you grew up in Central America, this fried chicken is simply irresistible. It's a fascinating illustration of the psychological power of taste memory.

"Remember when we went to Piedras Negras?" my friend Francis asks by way of explanation. I assure him I recall the trip. I was invited to judge the International Nacho Festival there last October, and Francis came along. We ate nothing but nachos and other Mexican dishes for the better part of a week. "And remember how as soon as we got back across the border, we made a beeline for the Whataburger?" I nod my head in agreement. I ordered a double meat Whataburger, and although it was just a hamburger, it evoked all sorts of warm and fuzzy emotions.

For Central Americans who haven't been back to their home country for months, or even years, Pollo Campero conjures up even more intense feelings. The chain's trademark, a chicken in a cowboy hat, is part of Latin American pop culture, gracing 170 fried chicken restaurants in Central and South America and even appearing in a cartoon show for kids. Central American expats bring so much Pollo Campero chicken to their homesick friends back in the States that the chain built outlets in airports. The aroma on these flights became so overwhelming that El Salvador's Grupa TACA airlines eventually requested that the chain sell its chicken in airtight packages.

When the first U.S. Pollo Campero franchise opened in Los Angeles last year, it sold 17.5 tons of chicken a week, grossing over $1 million in sales in its first seven weeks in business. Based on the incredible demand, the chain has announced plans to open 200 locations in the United States over the next five years.

That a Guatemalan chicken chain is beating McDonald's on its own turf is a source of great pride for the Central American community. And the chicken is indeed tasty. But what's really drawing the crowds is the yearning of a bicultural community for a taste of home. There are some 115,000 Central Americans in Houston, and almost all of them grew up eating at Pollo Campero. For them, this fried chicken is not only the cure for nostálgico, it's a way to remember their ethnic identity.

As the Chinese philosopher Lin Yü-t'ang once said, "What is patriotism but the love of the good things we ate in our childhood?"

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