Importing A Taste Of Home

Friday, April 10, 2009

Diners flock to new Guatemala fast food franchise in Chelsea

First and foremost, they come for the chicken. Thousands of hungry customers are pouring into this city from across New England, transforming a quiet corner of Chelsea into a virtual tourist attraction. People are lining up by the hundreds, waiting as long as two hours in the rain, wind, and sun.

Discuss COMMENTS (51) After all, this is Pollo Campero.

Last week's arrival of Guatemala's most famous restaurant chain - which means "Country Chicken" in English - is drawing comparisons to the Krispy Kreme doughnut craze almost a decade ago. To astonished outsiders, it looks like just another chicken restaurant. But to Central American immigrants, it is a precious opportunity to be immersed in the tastes, sounds, and smells of a home far away.

"Just the smell of it," Miriam Rivas, a 30-year-old housewife of Chelsea, said dreamily, with a wave of her hand, after having lunch with her husband and two daughters yesterday. "Ay. Pollo Campero!" Only a few weeks ago, the spot was a darkened, hidden corner off a side street downtown, surrounded by red-brick tenements and mom-and-pop shops. The building used to house a Riley's roast beef, but over the years the restaurant had declined in popularity.

Yesterday, police officers directed traffic as cars packed the parking lot and clogged the drive-through. Customers' faces lit up at the sight of the logo - a smiling chicken in a cowboy hat. Scores of families have even posed for pictures in front of it.

Some neighbors have complained about traffic jams, but the company is paying for police details.

"It is unbelievable," said City Manager Jay Ash. "I have never seen anything like it. I am telling people it must have been like when the first McDonald's opened up in Japan." The Chelsea store is the 50th American franchise of a company that blossomed from a humble, slant-roofed store founded in Guatemala in 1971 to one of that country's most respected companies with franchises worldwide.

And it is finding a warm welcome here largely because Central American immigrants have boomed in the past two decades, especially from Guatemala and El Salvador, where Pollo Campero is most popular. More than a third of Chelsea's residents are foreign born, mostly from Latin America.

Many were clamoring to work at Pollo Campero, as well. More than 1,000 people, mostly immigrants, applied for 70 jobs at the store; the wage is about $10 an hour. The turnout surprised even the company's executives, who had picked Chelsea because of its immigrant base.

"It really does mean a lot in that community," said Jeff Ackerman, CEO of Chair 5 Restaurants, which owns the franchise in Massachusetts.

Pollo Campero decided to branch out into the United States when it realized that flights from Central America often smelled like fried chicken because travelers were bringing the chicken to relatives. The first US store opened in Los Angeles in 2002. In addition to Chelsea, stores are planned for East Boston and in Rhode Island this year.

Word that the company was opening spread quickly among immigrant from Maine to Rhode Island. Some waited until yesterday to visit in hopes that the line would be shorter. Most Latinos are Catholics, who avoid meat on Fridays during Lent.

Still, at lunchtime the line spilled out the door.

"At last we have a piece of El Salvador in Chelsea," said Francisco Ventura of Dorchester, a telecommunications worker at Harvard, who took the day off to visit with his wife and son. He smiled at a pile of bones on his plate. "It can't compare to anything else." Diners dug into the lightly breaded chicken, closed their eyes, and waited to see if it tasted just like home.

"It's not exactly the same, but it's juicy," said Vilma de Perez of Chelsea, an El Salvador native who has lived in the United States for 21 years. Yesterday was her third trip to Pollo Campero.

Many of yesterday's diners could not afford to visit the restaurant very often back home because it was too expensive. But since they moved to the United States for a better life, they can dine here more often, and remember what it was like to be home. They savored the yuca fries, sweet plantains, and creamy flan for dessert.

"This place lets me travel in my mind," said Elba Uma´┐Ża of East Boston, an immigrant from El Salvador who long ago celebrated her high school graduation at Pollo Campero back home. Her voice faltered as she recalled the trips, especially with her parents, who are now old and far away.

To succeed in America, analysts and others said Pollo Campero must attract an ethnically broad clientele. Pollo Campero executives say they are mindful of that, adding lower-fat grilled chicken to its menus, and providing menus in English and Spanish, and bilingual cashiers.

But what really attracted Marvin Hooker, a senior citizen who lives in Chelsea, were the long lines outside.

"I walked by and saw the lines and said, 'I gotta try this chicken,' " he said as he munched on a box of chicken. "So far, so good."

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