The Eating...Our Words 100: Enrique Bravo of Pollo Bravo on How Selling Chicken Helped Him Realize His American Dream
Enrique Bravo, a guy from Puebla, Mexico, at the Richmond location of Pollo Bravo
Photos by Mai Pham
Who he is:
Ask Enrique Bravo who he is, and he'll tell you, "I'm just a guy from Puebla, Mexico." Dig a little deeper and you'll find that he's much more than that. He's a restaurateur who's made it against all odds -- a guy who made a reality of his American dream.
When he arrived on United States soil approximately 16 years ago, he didn't know that his dream was to own a restaurant. "I was almost 20 years old. I didn't know anything about business. I had planned on coming to New York for two years to work and make money, then go back to Mexico and buy a house or something" he says. One of his employers told him to have bigger dreams than that, and so he changed his plan: "I had to make a decision: Go to school or work hard to make my own business. So I took the decision to work hard for three years, every single day, to save all the money to open a business."
For three years, he held three jobs: working as a dishwasher in two restaurants, and as a janitor in a nightclub. "I just worked and saved my money. I didn't spend money on anything, not even to buy a bottle of water," he remembers.
Going into the restaurant business wasn't his original plan. His first business venture was in a nightclub, but a burglary left them without anything. This was the twist of fate that turned him into a restaurant owner. His partner in the club owed him money, and gave him a small restaurant in lieu of paying him back.
Bravo turned the struggling little restaurant into a successful Mexican restaurant until the tragedy of 9/11 left all of New York in tatters. After that, he says business came to a standstill. He lost a lot of money. He had to start over. Eventually, he opened a restaurant in New Jersey, but expenses were high, and he found himself working 15 to 16 hour days just to pay the bills. His sister lived in Houston, and after a few visits, he made an executive decision to sell everything and move to Houston.
Pollo a la brasa (Peruvian rotisserie chicken) at Pollo Bravo
Bravo opened Pollo Bravo on Hillcroft near Hwy 59 in December of 2006. The restaurant offers a mix of Peruvian pollo a la brasa, or Peruvian rotisserie chicken, and Mexican food from his hometown of Puebla. He says that when he first opened, there was nobody. There were days when he would only sell two chickens.
With little in terms of advertising budget, Bravo did what he could to spread the word by passing out flyers to businesses and offering a free meal. "Just stop by and try our food," he recalls telling people, "because everyone can use a free meal." It took a good six months for word of mouth to spread about the quality of his food, especially among Peruvians and Latin Americans, and little by little, business at the restaurant picked up.
Fast forward six years. Bravo is a restauranteur who now owns two locations of Pollo Bravo outright, one at Hillcroft, and one at Richmond. He also has franchise stake in two other locations, one on Memorial, and another in Katy on South Mason Road. The popularity of Peruvian food is at an all time high, and Pollo Bravo is often cited by Latin American chefs like Roberto Castre of Latin Bites as one of their favorites.
With no PR to speak of and nothing but the strength of excellent word-of-mouth reviews, his restaurants have gained the attention of, and merited positive reviews from restaurant critic Katharine Shilcutt of the Houston Press, who described it as "the kind of place where you can relax over a Cristal beer or a potent sangria, its vibrantly saffron-colored walls and joyful atmosphere encouraging you to linger over a meal of rotisserie chicken or ceviche."
More recently, Alison Cook of the Houston Chronicle also gave it a positive review, saying "The food was consistently good, the prices reasonable, the table service fast and friendly, the surroundings warm and lovingly detailed. In short, Pollo Bravo is head and shoulders above most chicken joints."
Chicken plate with chilaquiles and a side of plantains
What does he do?
"Now, it depends. I could work 10, 12 hours, or I could work only two or three hours. I love my job. I can do anything. Dishwasher -- I have one day every week that I work as a dishwasher. I am in charge of the kitchen, employees, advertising. I can be the cook on the line. I do whatever the business needs."
Why does he love his job?
"Why? How can I explain... I like to talk with the customers, I like to talk with the employees. I really love what I do because I can move all around. I can be here one day, and at the other location another day. I love it, because I'm free."
If not here, then where?
"I think I would be in my hometown in Puebla, Mexico. Before I moved to the States, I was really happy in my hometown. My parents were farmers -- they farmed corn and watermelons. I loved this kind of life."
If not this, then what?
"If I had taken another decision to go to college, I think I would have been a lawyer."
"For me, my future is to take the name on top of other chicken restaurants. I want to be famous in chicken. So my next step is to build a franchise business. I feel very confident that I can move forward with this name and with this concept. I would also like to keep at least one store and keep working in my own restaurant. That's important because if your employees see you around, they are more confident, they are more professional, and they'll follow you. When my employees see me, they are happy."
The Eating...Our Words 100:
- Sean Beck, Sommelier Extraordinaire - Brooksy Smith, Owner of JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers - Minh Nguyen, Owner of Cafe TH and One of Houston's Best Front-of-House Personalities - Tiffany Tyler and Aimee Turney of Central City Co-Op - Ellen Schwartz, Culinary Instructor & Private Chef - James DeLeon, Certified Sommelier and Craft Beer Nut at Kroger - Alex Padilla, Executive Chef at Ninfa's on Navigation - Kevin Strickland, Herder of Cats at gratifi, a.k.a. Ziggy's - Ron Chen, Owner and "Head Coach" at Rattan Pan-Asian Bistro - Brock Wagner, Godfather of Craft Beer in Houston and Founder of Saint Arnold Brewery, the Oldest Microbrewery in Texas - Blanche Kinze, Murray's Cheese Master at Kroger - Bear Dalton, Wine Buyer & Educator, Spec's - Sam Ray of Republic National, Houston's Largest Wine Distributor - Thai Van, Server Extraordinaire at Kata Robata - Dale Robertson, a Populist Among Wine Writers - Denman Moody, Author of The Advanced Oenophile - Benjy Mason, Executive Chef at Down House
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