Beefing up Mexican flavors

The chicken-focused menu at Costa Mesa, Calif.-based El Pollo Loco is inspired by the cooking of Mexico. To give customers more variety along the same theme, the 399-unit concept recently introduced an LTO featuring shredded beef, offered in a taco, a stuffed quesadilla and—most notably, a new exploration for the brand, in a torta.

1. A sandwich makes its debut

A torta is Mexico’s version of a sandwich. “I really wanted to bring a sandwich to market. It’s the most popular format in quick service,” says Heather Gardea, El Pollo Loco’s vice president of R&D. To get it on the menu, a number of new SKUs had to be brought into the system, including a beef product that wouldn’t break the bank.

2. Making the cut

Beef prices kept trending upward, so Gardea worked with a supplier to source a proprietary product that would meet food costs and operational specs for the length of the LTO. The supplier uses the more economical blade cut from the chuck and does the initial cooking; the braised beef is then hand-shredded at each location and simmered in a stew with tomatoes, guajillo chilies, garlic, cumin and Mexican oregano.

3. Holding it together

“The bread was the hardest product to solve,” says Gardea. “How artisan did we want to go? Too soft and it wasn’t portable enough; too firm and it had too much bite. We wanted a little collapse to hold the ingredients together.” The team settled on a bolillo—a traditional Mexican bread sourced from a domestic supplier. 

4. Layering on extras

Gardea partnered with another manufacturer for the sauce. That supplier created a garlicky aioli with a hit of chipotle, a condiment that is cross-utilized on the tacos. After trying several cheeses, shredded Monterey Jack worked best; sliced cheese didn’t melt as quickly. Shredded cabbage, pinto beans, avocado slices and fresh pico de gallo add textural elements. 

5. The value equation

To make margins, the Shredded Beef Torta, Grande Tacos and Stuffed Quesadilla had to be priced higher than comparable chicken items; the beef LTO items go for $5.49 a la carte and $6.99 with chips and a beverage. Although El Pollo Loco had not offered a sandwich before, the torta “surprisingly took the lead in sales during the run of the LTO,” says Gardea.

What’s next

For the first quarter of 2014, El Pollo Loco is jumping on the New Year’s resolution trend by offering six grilled chicken items, all under 500 calories. Another torta LTO may be in the works. “It really resonated with guests,” says Gardea.


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