Here's something you don't see every day: a fast food chain dolling itself up like a more expensive, sit-down casual restaurant.
Pollo Tropical is punching up its Tampa Bay menu with more choices and outfitting stores with silverware and dinner plates, a sangria dispenser by the register and even a form of table service.
"Our customers in research told us our food is better than fast food, so we're trying to match the dining experience to the food quality," said Kim Miller, marketing director of the 91-store Miami chain that's a fixture with 67 outlets in South Florida but adapting to fit in everywhere. "Food looks and tastes better eaten from plates with silver."
The bay area was chosen for the test because its population is closer to a microcosm of the United States. And its Hispanic population — which includes a large proportion of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans commonly seen in other big markets — is more diverse than South Florida, which is dominated by Cubans and South American immigrants.
The chain still plans to get 60 percent of its business from carryout. So regulars will still see the familiar foam containers and plastic cutlery at the drive-through. Inside, customers still line up at the register to order. But servers now deliver every non-takeout meal to a dining room with subdued lighting and a half-dozen famous paintings carefully redone with images of the chain's chicken mascot. A Pinellas Park store today joins one in Oldsmar with the new look. Two more in Tampa will be switched by spring.
The menu adds six sauces, chicken with a spicy kick, a Cuban wrap and nine sides including mashed potatoes, bean salad and mac and cheese for kids.
With an average ticket of $9.63, Pollo Tropical does annual sales of $2 million a store. That tops all Hispanic quick-serve chains including Taco Bell and is $300,000 more than second-place Chipotle Mexican Grill, according to Technomic Inc.
Pollo Tropical is now starting to appear in New York and Hartford, Conn., and has franchised units in Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Honduras and the Bahamas.
Locally, prices nudged up 3 percent to pay for the dishwasher and two people needed weekly for table delivery. But the cost of melamine plates, wine glasses and silver was offset by savings in paper and plastic. The chain held the $4 prices on its trademark TropiChop bowls and two-piece chicken, black beans and rice dinner.
It's new ground for corporate parent Carrols Restaurant Group, too. The nation's largest Burger King franchisee, Syracuse, N.Y.-based Carrols hopes to capitalize on Hispanic population and income growth at Pollo Tropical, which uses Caribbean citrus flavors, and Taco Cabana, its Tex-Mex fast food chain.
The transition in Oldsmar produced enough sales lift to expand the test, but it was not as simple as some cosmetic tweaks. The reorganized kitchen uses a vacuum tumble marinating system to better infuse meat within one hour rather than 24. A door greeter was dropped because customers thought that was just too much. A swinging door was added to hide kitchen workers scurrying to shovel meals out the drive-through window. And employees had to learn new kitchen choreography.
"After 30 years in fast food, retraining everybody to deliver a different experience has been the hard part," said Vicky Trimmer, regional vice president. "In fast food, it's about speed and not being rude. This is about a smile and hospitality, too. It's a work in progress."
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.