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Chicken chain bets on South

El Pollo Loco officers hope their grilled chicken will appeal to Southern palates.

Associated Press
Published September 15, 2007


HIRAM, Ga. - Robert Bowman loves his chicken, especially when it's breaded and fried.

"When I go on a trip, that's all I'll eat is fried chicken. I just like fried chicken," the 67-year-old retired postal worker says.

But during a recent lunch at a restaurant near his home, the poultry on Bowman's plate was prepared differently. Instead of being fried, it was grilled and marinated with citrus, herbs and spices.

It's part of a move by a California-based fast food chain to sell Mexican-style grilled chicken in the South, including Tampa.

"We're giving the South, which loves its chicken, a healthy, wholesome alternative to fried chicken," said Steve Carley, El Pollo Loco Inc.'s chief executive.

The suburban Atlanta restaurant, which opened at the end of August, is the first Southern location for the chain, which is ranked 70th in the nation's list of top restaurant chains based on sales, according to Restaurants & Institutions magazine.

The chain has 340 restaurants and is under contract with a company led by a former Church's Chicken executive to open 50 restaurants in the Atlanta area in the next six years.

Beyond the Tampa restaurant, outlets are planned for Orlando, Charlotte, N.C., and Norfolk, Va.

Although grilled chicken is not new to the South, it's not the traditional focus of Southern palates, said John T. Edge, director of the University of Mississippi's Southern Foodways Alliance.

"We tend to argue about the foods to which we are devoted - fried chicken and barbecue," Edge said. "Nobody's fussing and fighting over grilled chicken in the South."

Indeed, the South's chicken wars tend to be of the fried variety. Some of the nation's Top 100 restaurant chains built upon their success serving up fried chicken in the South.

Most of the country's "major chicken players" in the $15.1-billion industry of limited service chicken chains are based in the South, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of the Chicago-based Technomic Inc., a research and consulting firm.

If successful, El Pollo Loco's move into the heavily competitive Southern market gives the company a good chance to become a national chain instead of remaining a regional West Coast brand, Tristano said.

Once in the South, Carley said, the chain will stick to its roots, meaning fried chicken won't be served anytime soon. Instead, the chain is banking on the view that offering grilled chicken instead of fried food will be attractive in a region that struggles with obesity.

Chris Elliott is a former Church's Chicken COO and the CEO of Fiesta Brands Inc., which has contracted with El Pollo Loco to open the 50 new restaurants.

Bowman said he's not sure all lovers of fried chicken will turn to the grilled variety. But he hopes many will at least try it.

[Last modified September 15, 2007, 00:19:43]

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