In 1988, the first Pollo Tropical restaurant opened in Miami and the Latino population rejoiced. There was finally a Latin fast food restaurant in our city. A real one, unlike Taco Bell. Like a new relationship, it was awesome in the beginning. We were able to get congri, yucca fries, and Cuban-style grilled chicken on the go. Then just like many relationships, it all started going to hell.
When I think back on it now, the bread should have given me a hint that something was wrong. Instead of using a Cuban-style roll, Pollo Tropical included this cheap, greasy, and tasteless little roll with its dinners. It always sat dejected on the corner of the Styrofoam plate -- a loser no one liked.
The roll was a sign of things to come, an indicator that Pollo Tropical put its bottom line over the quality of its food. While the restaurant has expanded (and expanded, and expanded) and its quarterly sales have risen steadily, the taste and quality of the food has declined.
I used to frequent the restaurant on a fairly regular basis back in the '90s. I stopped eating there when Pollo Tropical began removing all the good items from its menu: First came the amazing King Congri.
And the items that did remain became cheap imitations of their former selves. The chicken, once plump and juicy, became anorexic and dry. The black beans can't even compete with their canned counter parts. French fries are soggy. And so on.
Last year, when a friend introduced me to the chicken chipotle sandwich I started eating there again. That lasted for a few months.
One day the sandwich handed to me was literally half the size of what I had been getting for months. On the condition that he and the location remain anonymous, the manager explained that they started ordering the boneless, skinless chicken breasts from another vendor who sold smaller chicken breasts. He explained that because Pollo Tropical pays by the pound and not by the piece, if it got more pieces for the same amount of money, the profit margin would be bigger. That's what corporate told him when he called in after customers had commented on the difference in the sandwich. "Of course, that's not what they told me to tell people."
In addition, Pollo Tropical has decided to tweak its menu in favor of more traditional American fare in its locations outside of South Florida so that it may appeal to a broader range of consumers. Although Pollo Tropical is highly successful in South Florida, it's looking to compete on a national level. I find nothing wrong with that, except that to do so, the chain apparently needs an American makeover.
Clients in New Jersey for example, are not eager to stand in line for Pollo's black beans or fried plantains, so items like macaroni and cheese and brown rice have been added to the menu. This is equivalent to Latina girls who stay out of the sun, dye their hair blonde, and get blue color contacts so that they can appeal to a broader "fan base." The thing is that Salma Hayek is just as attractive as Julianne Moore. She doesn't need to Americanize herself. And neither does Pollo Tropical.
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What Pollo Tropical should do is concentrate on making good food, which is something the chain has obviously been ignoring as corporate big-wigs plan on how to dominate non-Latino markets. The fact is that the quality of the food has steadily gone down, and maybe a lot of Latinos are just more apt to choose mediocre Latino fast food over mediocre American fast food and vice-versa.
We contacted the Miami corporate offices who directed us to the media handlers to ask about the decline in quality in relation to Pollo Tropical's expansion. Our calls requesting comment have not been returned.
If Pollo Tropical concentrated more on providing good food and less on cheapening their current menu items, perhaps it wouldn't have to try so hard.