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Guatemalan chain Pollo Campero opens in Tampa in July

They have not advertised, and the new building next to Fiesta Plaza didn't sport a Pollo Campero sign. Yet somehow the Central American community in the Tampa Bay area figured out a familiar fast-food taste is coming.

"We're getting calls and people at the door asking when we open," said Stephen Carlson, local operations director of a Guatemalan chicken chain with a cultlike following. "We open in early July."

Fried chicken may not be a growth industry in today's health-conscious society, so Pollo Campero is one of the few chains offering roasted items as well. It also was the first with a self-serve salsa bar, a tactic since picked up by Miami-based Pollo Tropical.

The Gutierrez family backed into the business after cash-poor customers at its general store in Guatemala traded chickens for flour. So in 1971 they added a restaurant.

Today there are 326 with sales of $400 million across Central America and the Caribbean. One of the busiest is in the Guatemala City Airport, where it's common for departing passengers to fill carry-ons with Pollo Campero for homesick relatives.

The expansion followed migration patterns north to Los Angeles in 2002. Today, there are 50 U.S. stores.

The flavor's not spicy, but distinctive. Credit a citrus marinade and Peruvian seasonings in the oven-baked chicken. The fried chicken is cooked in soy oil.

The chain is been no shrinking violet in real estate, either. Pollo Campero signed a deal to replace McDonald's in Downtown Disney at Walt Disney World. At 4060 N Armenia Ave., the first to open here is in the heart of West Tampa's Latino community. The chain is looking to expand next into Town 'N Country and eventually have five stores in Hillsborough County.

• • •

Underscoring studies that find no link between a down economy and retail theft, shoplifting and employee theft declined about 1.5 percent to $33 billion in the United States in the past year. That's a three-year low from $36.5 billion, according to national statistics compiled by the University of Florida. Shoplifting was 35 percent of the total.

Store detectives credit better technology and intelligence sharing with law enforcement.

"Retailers can use software now to detect unusual shopping patterns, match up video with repeat offenders and spot trends to break up theft rings," said Jeff Bean, vice president of retail for Boca Raton's ADT Security.

• • •

Studies show shoppers trust anonymous customer reviews more than signed critiques in the media. Now a consumer agency says even complaint websites that enable abused customers to just vent over shoddy treatment deserve credibility, too.

"If you have a problem you don't think will be resolved by consumer protection agencies or the Better Business Bureau, you should post your complaint on these websites, too," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, a Washington nonprofit.

His study of the most popular sites found consumer protection agency investigators and potential customers check sites before doing business with national companies. Sometimes even the source of a complaint notices.

The big free ones — complaints.com, complaints board.com, My3Cents.com, ripoffreport.com and pissed consumer.com — brim with unverified vitriol.

Missing is a defunct complaint site I found years ago, just before JCPenney shut down its Eckerd Drug chain.

By far the top source of complaints — over 8,000 — was Eckerd employees beefing about their bosses. That was telling.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Guatemalan chain Pollo Campero opens in Tampa in July 06/14/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 14, 2010 10:08pm]
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