Saturday, July 20, 2024

The true story of Mexico’s ‘Happy Chicken’ restaurant chain

If you live or travel anywhere between Baja California and Yucatán, you have almost certainly come across a Pollo Feliz restaurant. You may have even seen one in the United States.

As it’s a major corporation, I thought its story would be relatively straightforward to research. I was wrong.

Going through Mexican newspapers, the initial story I got was that Arnoldo de la Rocha was the founder. That was certainly the story published in Entrepreneur magazine, El Universal newspaper and others.

They talked at great length about his upbringing as a rural farmworker, one of 12 children in the Sierra Tarahumara, before going to the city of Chihuahua to sell grilled chicken the way his family made it. It looked like a story similar to that of Col. Sanders of KFC fame, from nothing to a fried chicken empire.

Then the story shifted inexplicably to the first restaurant opening in Los Mochis, Sinaloa. Confused by this, I tried to contact someone at company headquarters to clarify the story. This was difficult as the website was under construction, with no contact info. Even the Facebook page did not have a message button. This was odd for such a prominent business.

One of more than 1,000 Pollo Feliz restaurants.
One of more than 1,000 Pollo Feliz restaurants.

But Arnoldo de la Rocha has a page, geared for presentations and talks. I reached his agent and had success reaching Don Arnoldo. I thought I’d just be clarifying some points and getting details, but it turned out to be more.

Long story short, I was told that the newspaper stories were wrong and based on his talks entitled “El Sueño Mexicano” (the Mexican dream). In reality, he is one of many founders and owners of the company — which seemed really strange as well.

I found his talk on YouTube and completely understand why the journalists got the story as they did. De la Rocha insisted that the “real” story was in his book, Tierra Perdida.

And yes, De la Rocha’s account in the book is quite different.

Perhaps the “real” founders are the Rocha Zazueta branch of the family which hails from the Sinaloa/Chihuahua mountains. They migrated to the coastal cities of Sinaloa to find work.

In Guasave they came across a former professional baseball player who had retired, stayed in Mexico, and began grilling and selling the citrus-marinated chicken popular in his native Caribbean. The recipe was not difficult to reproduce and modify, and imitators sprang up, including the Rocha Zazuetas.

Chicken on the grill at Pollo Feliz.
Chicken on the grill at Pollo Feliz.

In 1975, Guadalupe and Héctor de la Rocha Zazueta opened a stand selling this chicken in Los Mochis. It did not catch on at first, competing against the well established spit-roasted chicken. But eventually it did take off, and others in the Rocha clan were invited to work with the established restaurants and then open their own. Family-owned places sprang up in Sinaloa, Chihuahua and into Guanajuato, all independently owned and under various names.

In 1978, the Chinchillas Chavez family joined in, opening their first restaurant in Celaya, Guanajuato, calling it Pollo Feliz.

It might have remained like many other family businesses in Mexico except for the North American Free Trade Agreement opening up Mexico to international competition. To cope, members of the families met in 1990 and most decided to unite the restaurants into a single corporation under the name of Pollo Feliz.

The corporate image was crafted at that time and remains the same to this day. The move not only allowed them to compete with transnational chain restaurants, it also gave them national recognition.

By the mid-1990s, there were about 170 restaurants. Today, there are over 1,000, employing 15,000 people in Mexico. The first U.S. location was opened in 2001 in Tucson, Arizona, when a cousin with U.S. citizenship wanted to open a restaurant and was given permission to use the name.

There were not high hopes, but the food turned out to be a hit not only with the Hispanic population, but with the English-speaking one as well. Since then, the company has tried to register and grow Pollo Feliz USA as a registered franchise, but it has been difficult because of the start-up costs.

There are restaurants with the name in Houston, El Paso, Brownsville and Chicago, but all are owned by family members. Official franchising is on “standby,” according to Victor Manuel Rodríguez of the U.S. branch.

The confusion about who started Pollo Feliz comes about because most corporations start as a single proprietor which then takes on partners. Instead, there are over 100 people in the Rocha and Chinchillas families that are considered owners, although legally there are six.

Today, Pollo Feliz dominates the image of take-home chicken in Mexico with all the pros and cons that go along with that. But this story does highlight one Mexican cultural trait, the emphasis on family rather than the individual.

It was not one person who picked himself up by his bootstraps, but a group of family members helping each other.

Leigh Thelmadatter arrived in Mexico 17 years ago and fell in love with the land and the culture. She publishes a blog called Creative Hands of Mexicoand her first book, Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta, was published last year. Her culture blog appears weekly on Mexico News Daily.

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