Saturday, 7 September 2013

BEHIND THE SCENES: Pollo Tropical’s Grilled Chicken Saga with Caribbean Twist

By Sourish Bhattacharyya
WHEN I went to meet the genial Manjit Singh Saini, who has brought the Florida-based Pollo Tropical (pronounced Po-yo Tropi-kaal) to India, one big question raged in my mind: “Why Pollo Tropical? Why not Burger King, or Quesnos, or whatever?”
As we sat down at India’s first Pollo Tropical at what was earlier the Food Chowk behind DLF Place, Saket, Saini said he had one big idea when he ventured into the restaurant business. He wanted to sell chicken, but not fried chicken, because the new generation had moved on to grilled chicken. Each visit to KFC, where he saw young people opting for the fiery grilled chicken, convinced him of this significant dietary shift.
So when Saini, whose father had started Paramount, the family’s thriving precision instruments business, in 1964, started scouting around for a brand to bring into India, he first thought of Pollo Campero, which was eventually brought into the country by Amit Burman’s LiteBite Foods, after being impressed by the burgers he had eaten at the chain’s outlets in Guatemala and El Salvador. He even checked out franchising opportunities with Nando’s and ChicKing.
Saini’s love for chicken took him to far corners of the world, but it was Pollo Tropical that beckoned him. He got to know from a friend that a senior Pollo Tropical executive, Senior Vice President for International Development, Marc Mushkin, had travelled to India with a franchise trade mission led by the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Commerce, Nicole Lamb-Hale, in 2011. Locating his coordinates, Saini got in touch with Mushkin on email and got invited to Florida for exploratory talks with the 25-year-old company’s leadership.
Manjit Singh Saini (centre, standing) with
Pollo Topical's Senior VP (International
Development) Marc Mushkin, left, and
U.S. Embassy's Minister-Counsellor
John McCaslin at the franchise's opening
A determined Saini landed in Florida, ate at 16 Pollo Tropical locations in two days to convince himself that he had made the right choice, and sealed the deal, which will see Paramount Cuisines, parent company of Pollo Tropical in India, opening nine restaurants in the National Capital Region, Haryana, Punjab and Chandigarh in the next two years.
The Miami-based chain, which is famous for its open flame-grilled chicken, owns and operates 95 locations in the United States plus four licensed restaurants on college campuses in Florida. And it has 33 international franchised locations in Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Panama, Trinidad & Tobago, and Venezuela. New Delhi is the latest addition to Pollo Tropical’s expanding map and the group’s first location outside the Western Hemisphere.
When I visited the Pollo Tropical (http://pollotropical.com) outlet at Saket, I was surprised to find the 2,750-square-foot restaurant had a 1,000-square-foot kitchen — very generous by the standards of Indian restaurants. A major part of it was taken up by the open-flame griller from Imperial (www.imperialrange.com), the California-based global supplier of cooking equipment, and I saw whole chickens with skin cooking in their own juices.
The cooking process, according to Shriya Kaur, who heads the F&B operations at Pollo Tropical, can take up to 45 minutes. A PAR sheet (and I thought these are used only by the gambling industry!) informs the kitchen staff about the number of chickens that would be required for each time slot. It’s that much systems-driven, which is why Mushkin has been here 12 times in the last six months. Each chicken, for instance, weighs between 1,300 and 1,500gms and is sourced from the Sonepat-based broiler breeders and poultry processors, Skylark Group (http://skylarkfoods.com).

The Pollo Tropical store behind DLF Place, Saket
Before the grilling comes the most important part of the process: marination. Pollo Tropical’s proprietary marinade is made with fruit juices and a blend of Caribbean spices, and to ensure that each drop of it seeps into the muscle fibres and bones of each bird, the whole chickens are placed in a ‘vacuum tumbler’ that can take 75 of them at a time. Each chicken spends an hour in the vacuum tumbler and has its flesh and bones pulled in different directions in a way that ensures not a pore is without the marinade.
Other features of Pollo Tropical’s menu are the salads drizzled with dressings made afresh daily, steamed yellow rice flavoured with vegetable stock and served with beans, a bouquet of five dipping sauces (of which the cilantro garlic and Caribbean pineapple are unbeatable), paneer preparations that taste refreshingly different and wholesome, and potato wedges baked in a Rational oven (as is the paneer) so that they don’t get soggy and yet are not bone dry.
Saini is confident that Pollo Tropical will acquire a committed following in the months ahead, so his team is busy organising food tastings at the mall (DLF Place), active on Facebook and Twitter (social media seems to be working best for them), and encouraging the early patrons to post reviews on Zomato with freebies as incentives. Of course, at the end, it will be the food that will do the talking.