Fast Feeder El Pollo Loco Puts Beef on Menu

El Pollo Loco, which has aggressively been defending its turf this year after KFC added grilled chicken to its menu, has started offering beef dishes and is promoting them in new ads.

The Costa Mesa, Calif.-based chain, known for its signature marinated grilled chicken items, is adding steak tacos, a sirloin steak bowl and a steak cheese quesadilla.
“We had introduced a steak taco earlier which was initially very successful. But it was at a time when we were known just for bone-in chicken, rice and beans,” said CMO Karen Eadon, a quick-serve restaurant veteran of chains like Applebee’s and Taco Bell. “We’re now known more for our Mexican menu and steak is just a natural line extension of that.” Since then, the chain has broadened its chicken menu and is more associated with flame-grilled cooking than just chicken per se, Eadon said.

El Pollo Loco’s steak introduction is being supported by English and Spanish-language advertising, featuring flame spokescharacters with respective tag lines: “Taste the Fire” and “Light My Fire.” KKrueger Communications is El Pollo Loco’s general market advertising agency, and Cruz/Kravetz:Ideas is the company’s Hispanic agency of record. Both agencies are based in the L.A. area. In 2008, the chain spent $29 million on advertising, $28 million through November of 2009, excluding online, per the Nielsen Co.

The addition of beef is aimed at increasing customer frequency and expanding the chain’s consumer base. El Pollo Loco, originally founded in Mexico, has historically been based in California and the Southwest, but has more recently expanded into other parts of the U.S., including Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Virginia, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Unlike many fast-food chains, El Pollo Loco has seen sales decline due to the tough economic climate, which hit California particularly hard. In the third quarter, same-store sales dropped 10 percent. In announcing those results, the company’s CEO Stephen Carley was blunt in his assessment of the chain’s performance: “The depressed economy and disproportionately high level of unemployment in our core markets, and in particular among Hispanics, which are a key demographic for our brand, contributed to lower traffic frequency and average check.”

Broadening the chain’s menu options reflects that extended reach. Said Eadon: “We’re looking for ways to make the brand more accessible to people looking for more variety.”