El Pollo Loco Is Putting Meatless, Faux-Chicken Tacos on Its Menu at All 485 Locations

The rollout is 'very significant' for plant-based trend, experts say

A plant-based version of a chicken taco at El Pollo Loco
California-based chain El Pollo Loco will feature "chicken-less pollo tacos" in all locations. El Pollo Loco
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

El Pollo Loco, a Southern California-based chain that’s built its entire brand around poultry, has become the latest fast food restaurant to go meatless.

But unlike larger competitor KFC, still in test mode for its Beyond Meat-supplied product, El Pollo Loco has rolled out a chicken-less “pollo” menu item at all of its 485 locations.

The chain, founded in the mid-’70s, has expanded beyond its home state, with outlets now in Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Utah and Louisiana. 

"We wanted to differentiate our product from all others in the marketplace and work with a supplier that could exclusively produce this product for us."
—Bernard Acoca, president and CEO, El Pollo Loco

For its new “chicken-less pollo taco,” the company has bypassed the most popular suppliers in the space, namely Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, preferring instead to find its own source for a protein that “emulates shredded chicken,” execs say. They’re not disclosing the supplier, which is using a recipe formulated by the El Pollo Loco culinary team.

“We wanted to differentiate our product from all others in the marketplace and work with a supplier that could exclusively produce this product for us,” says Bernard Acoca, president and CEO. “We also wanted a meatless offering that was non-GMO and produced in the United States, which forced us to exclude certain suppliers.”

Along with the meat-free option, El Pollo Loco also rolled out what it’s calling “the world’s first Keto taco,” made with real chicken and fixings in a “Keto-friendly tortilla.”

The plant-based product innovation comes as consumers have shown that they’re eager to try imitation chicken, and Mexican chains like Chipotle, Qdoba and Del Taco have increasingly introduced meatless options. Category king Taco Bell, which has yet to jump into the plant-based protein fray, has responded to the meatless movement so far by buffing up its vegetarian offerings.

Execs at El Pollo Loco, who tested the meatless product “extensively” with their customers, say their goal is to “democratize better-for-you options.”

“We will continue to evolve and diversify our menu with purpose to make healthier living more accessible and convenient,” says Acoca, promising more chicken-less food in the future.

The company, via agencies Vitro for creative, Edible for public relations and Harmelin for social, kicks off its marketing this week and next around the new products, part of its limited-time “Mix and Match Street Tacos.”

A 3-minute hero video, with a cheeky sensibility and a pastoral setting, stars a fictional third-generation chicken rancher named Cordell Palmer who’s coping with the new normal. He’s made the transition from raising chickens to supplying chicken-less pollo, which means, basically, that he has a ton of time on his hands (and a lot less mess to clean up).

The campaign will fan out across TV, out of home, social, digital and radio.

By moving aggressively into plant-based poultry territory, El Pollo Loco’s launch “represents another milestone for the category,” says Zak Weston, food service expert at the nonprofit Good Food Institute. “There have been massive gains in plant-based protein at Mexican chains, and they’ve all put their own unique spin on it.”

The addition of meatless protein has to fit into a brand’s DNA and must be wholly embraced, Weston says, with Burger King’s successful Impossible Whopper serving as a prime example.

“Putting a plant-based option on a menu is not a silver bullet; it’s not a panacea,” he says. “It has to work for your consumers and your back-of-house supply chain, and it has to make sense for your brand.”

KFC, which caused a near frenzy at an Atlanta-area restaurant in August with its first Beyond Meat chicken-free nuggets and wings, broadened that initial test recently to some 70 outlets. And fast casual restaurant Yardhouse has had Gardein plant-based chicken dishes on its menu for at least five years, Weston says. But the El Pollo Loco announcement marks a new level of mainstream acceptance, with Weston calling the move “very significant.”

Plant-based burgers at chains like Burger King, White Castle and Carl’s Jr. were all the rage in 2019, followed by breakfast sandwiches with faux pork ingredients from places such as Dunkin and Starbucks. 

Recent headlines have featured Disney naming Impossible Foods its “preferred plant-based burger” for theme parks and cruise ships, Denny’s putting Beyond Meat’s burgers on its menus nationwide and White Castle testing plant-based cheese alongside its Impossible Sliders.

The news in 2020 will begin to include other meatless proteins, Weston predicted, as startups continue to proliferate and more established food manufacturers enter the category.

“The overarching lesson from 2019 was that plant-based is a lot more than just burgers,” Weston says. “We expect that to be reinforced in 2020 because there’s so much consumer demand across such a wide variety of demos.” 

@TLStanleyLA terry.stanley@adweek.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.