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Pollo Campero Jose Cofino


Jose Cofino

Jose Cofiño is the president of Adir Restaurants, Pollo Campero’s  master franchisee for six Western states.

One of Jose Cofino's earliest memories is plucking chickens as a 6-year-old in his father's poultry shop in Mexico City.

"I remember saying, 'I don't understand why God gave chickens wings. They don't fly and they're hard to pluck,'" he says.

Years later the mysterious ways of chickens surfaced again in Cofino's life with the high-flying Pollo Campero brand, a Guatemalan franchise that has plucked a faithful following from the Latin American community in the U.S. Cofino is president and COO of Adir Restaurants, the master franchisee for Pollo Campero for six Western states.

When the first U.S. unit opened in 2002, thousands of people lined up for the chicken. The first person arrived at the restaurant at 4:30 a.m., which doesn't seem so crazy, considering latecomers waited up to seven hours to eat the fried chicken. Employees cranked out 350 orders an hour, and limits were placed on the amount each person could order, after they discovered people at the front of the line were ordering huge amounts of chicken and then selling it – "at a nifty profit" – to the people in the back of the line, Cofino says.

The restaurant's supplier, Sysco, parked a truck behind the building filled with chickens cut into eight pieces. A second truck was called in, "but we never ran out of chicken," he says.

Restaurant sales reached $1 million in just 47 days. "We have customers order 800 to 1,000 pieces of chicken," Cofino says. But before you start dialing the Pollo Campero franchise line, Cofino adds that the restaurant was smack dab in the middle of a community with 90,000 Central Americans. And, so far, that has been key.

The brand is more than a food source to Latin Americans – it's a taste of home, a happy memory, a temporary remedy for homesickness.

Before Pollo Campero invaded the U.S., there were stories in the media of Latin Americans carrying back boxes and boxes of chicken on the airplane for family members in the U.S.

But it's not just memories, it actually is the chicken.

To hear Cofino describe the taste – lightly breaded so that your first bite is of this flavorful crunch and juicy, tender chicken meat – is to crave it. The
chicken is injected with marinade so that the flavor is throughout the chicken. "Campero to the bone" is the devotees' description.

Cofino's journey from chicken plucker to chicken master is a tale worth telling. He crossed a road, well traveled by immigrants, scratching out a vibrant life for himself, filled with lessons learned  on how to manage both people and a hot brand.

A leading brand needs a leader

Cofino was born in Cuba in 1958, during the Cuban Revolution as Fidel Castro was changing the country forever. When he was 2, Cofino's family was visiting his grandparents in Mexico where they received a telegram from family members still in Cuba saying in essence, "Don't come back."  A former employee of his father had denounced him and moved into the Cofinos' home. The government took over the family furniture store.

In the blink of an eye, they lost everything but the clothes on their back and the meager belongings they had packed for a vacation.

The family stayed in Mexico and Cofino's father started a storefront poultry store. The stress was too much, and he died of a stroke while still in his 50s. A year to the day of his father's death, Cofi–o's older brother was killed riding his bike home.

"My mom decided a single woman with a kid in Mexico was not good," he says. So in 1968 she sold her furniture and with $200 in her pocket arrived in Washington, D.C., where they had relatives. "She thought life in the U.S. was filled with more possibilities," he says.

Possibilities, yes, but easy? Not really.

His mother, however, was a survivor. She went to the parish priest and asked for help educating her son. "She never took public assistance, but she did take the assistance of others," he says.

Being an immigrant wasn't easy. "I didn't speak English and was laughed at, spat on," he says. Money wasn't easy to come by for a single mother. "Remember that cool Sting-Ray (bike) with the banana seat?" he asks. "Well, I didn't get that. I got an old rusted, blue bike which I sanded and painted red."

He worked all through high school and after graduation went to Georgetown University to study international economics. He washed dishes full time at a hospital, while attending school full time. On weekends he worked double shifts; studying on breaks. "I didn't know the alternative," he says, shrugging. "I had a sense that a lot of major things had happened (to make his mother's life hard). I kept thinking, "don't screw this up." He graduated in four years – not cum laude, but rather, cum luck, he jokes.

His leadership skills surfaced while he was still in high school. He was
promoted to assistant supervisor for his department at the hospital, supervising people "who started doing their job before I was born."

"I had to be old very young," he says. "By late high school I was probably 30 years old."

It was while washing dishes that he learned something valuable that changed his life course. "I realized I had an ability to win hearts and minds," he says. He was wise enough to know that while he wasn't going to tell his employees anything they didn't already know about their jobs, he could inspire them and make work more meaningful and fun.

It wasn't until a few years later when Cofino attended graduate school at Stanford that he came into his own – stopped being old, stopped being shy.  Since he didn't have to work full time while attending school, he was able to relax and learn. "I started reverting, getting younger," he says.

Another important insight came at his job with AT&T, between college and grad school.

"I was supervising operators back when operators had to put calls through," he says. The company measured productivity in blocks of 15 minutes. In examining the data, Cofino saw that if he arrived for his 3-to-11 p.m. shift tired and out of sorts, productivity tanked. "On the elevator ride  I had to psych myself up," he says. "I'd be energized and by osmosis they would pick up my mood."

It wasn't really rocket science: "The role of a leader is to provide the energy of the organization," he says. "Who's going to follow timidity? Indecision?"

Pollo Campero

Restaurants in the U.S. are fast-casual as opposed to sit-down service in Guatemala.

When  the government broke up AT&T, he was promised a promotion, "but I didn't start out to be a telephone guy." He applied to both Stanford and Wharton School of Business. Had he chosen Wharton, the phone company wanted him to stay on and consult while going to school. "I'd seen that movie," he says of his earlier struggle to balance work and school.

After Stanford he worked for Honeywell in Mexico and was offered the presidency of Honeywell Argentina. "It sounds sexier than it was. It was very small division," he says. At the same time he was offered a job with Harrah's Casino in Reno, Nevada. "Hospitality sounded more fun," he says.

Cofino got his feet wet in hospitality, learning the gaming industry and working for a union hotel. His next offer was a job to become a zone vice president for a number of Taco Bells. Feeling intrigued, but unprepared, he remembers thinking, "If they're stupid enough to give me this job, I'm stupid enough to take it."

It was a high-energy time at Taco Bell, when they reinvented QSR with the 99-cent menu, he says. Cofino rose to vice president of the Northeast zone, where he was responsible for 500 restaurants representing $400 million in revenue. His counterparts were a who's-who in the restaurant industry – including, IHOP/Applebee's Julia Stewart, who was running the northwest region.

"It was a blast," he says. "If you've ever had the honor of being part of a
high-performance team, then you don't use the term 'team' lightly."  That term is reserved for things more special than the sometimes overused phrase that will define anything as a team, such as making "three people waiting for a bus a bus-waiting team," he says.

It was while at Taco Bell that he learned much of the management style he uses today. His rule: "Start with the right people, train them, give them the right tools, align them against strategies they helped develop and then get the hell out of the way."

One of his innovations was to change the bonus structure. "If your bonus is based on your restaurants doing well, it doesn't give you incentive to be part of a team," he says. A bonus pool ensures managers will be more likely to help "competing" managers do well, or at least not steal their valued employees. "I had people working for me who were making more money than me," he says, adding, "Of course, I had better stock options..."

His hiring technique is also telling: "When I hire someone I talk to them more about culture, who they are, how they do things. It sounds touchy-feely, but it's not," he says. "They need the same values you have."  He also asks how they spend their personal time. If they donate time or are involved in community activities, chances are they'll be more likely to be community-spirited at work.

"You can't be two people. One at work and one at home. If you're Sybil, I get that, but if you believe people should be treated right in your personal life, you'll respect crew members," he says.

Cofino learned how important a strong community presence was during the Los Angeles "unrest," when neighborhoods rioted, burning down restaurants and stores in frustration over race relations. McDonald's, however, was left standing, because the franchisee had made a connection with the community – the restaurant was one of them, he says.

A few years later Cofio landed the job of president of PepsiCo Restaurants
International in Brazil, which owned the three brands, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC at the time. "I'm bilingual and they send me to the only country in South America that doesn't speak Spanish," he quips.

Grilled Chicken at Pollo Campero

Grilled chicken is a new dish Pollo Campero hopes will attract a new audience to its stores.

The job was difficult. He oversaw the two brands he had no experience with, and discovered "we hadn't been giving them good support." He was greeted by angry franchisees with a long list of demands.

Ironically, he discovered the Brazilians were "generous people who were able to separate business from the personal."

"They'd be brutal during the day and then say, 'let's go out to dinner,'" he says. "Here they were beating the snot out of me and then (they'd) be done with the blood-letting and we'd go have a meal together," he says, smiling. When he asked about it, they were surprised. "We like you," he says, they told him, "It's business."

He stayed about a year, but missed his friends in the U.S. After a short stint with The Disney Companies, helping with the expansion of the Disneyland Resort, he started his own consulting firm with a partner. He learned IT, software and running his own company. "I'd never be able to do what I do now without the consulting gig," he says. "You don't understand cash flow until you're the last person paid."

When his partner left to get a full-time job, Cofino met the master franchisee who was to bring Pollo Campero to the West and became intrigued. In essence, it was the opposite of what he did in Brazil – bringing a foreign chain to the U.S.

Coming home to roost

Cofino's skills aren't just reserved for a paycheck. He volunteers his time with a number of industry and community associations.

Alice Wheelwright, a vice president for Ecolab, had met Cofi–o while they were both volunteers with the Women's Foodservice Forum. When Wheelwright became involved with another organization that teaches women about owning their own business through franchising, she immediately thought of Cofino."I approached him to be on the advisory board, and he didn't even blink an eye," she says.

His input will be invaluable for Women Venture: "I'm impressed with his
compassion, energy and willingness and openness to think about business in different ways," she says. "When you're talking to Jose, he makes you feel like you're the only person in the room. That's a gift. He's comfortable in his own skin. Jose knows who Jose is."

Cofino's a natural for his new brand. In just a half-hour on stage at the
Franchise Finance & Development Conference, he had the audience not only salivating for the chicken, but also for the opportunity. After telling about the seven-hour wait in line and the $1 million in sales in 47 days, he reminded the audience that it wasn't an earning's claim. Nor was it the norm.

The brand is now moving into areas without a strong Latin American population and the stores are performing more normally – but definitely attracting non-Latinos. Pollo Campero wants to be known as the best chicken, not just the best fried chicken. The chain has launched its new grilled product, which is doing better than expected right off the grill. In the first month, they sold 35 tons of grilled chicken in 17 Los Angeles-area restaurants, he says.

Adir is also on the cutting edge when it comes to benefits. It offers health benefits to part-time employees-the majority of whom are Hispanic. It also offers English as a Second Language classes and a 401k plan. When the company learned a large group of employees didn't have bank accounts and were paying high fees to check-cashing businesses, it started a credit union. And when it came to light that most workers took the bus to work, Adir negotiated a low-cost yearly bus pass and took the cost as a payroll deduction. The idea, Cofino says, is to allow workers to take home more in their paychecks.

Employees obviously appreciate it, because turnover at Adir Restaurants is 40 percent, exemplary in the foodservice business.

Working for Pollo Campero is a coveted job in Guatemala, Cofino says. In Central America, the chain is a sit-down restaurant, as opposed to fast casual in the U.S. "To work for the company in Guatemala is a badge of honor," he says.

Cofino wants that loyalty to translate to the U.S. company. The employees are considered the most important people in the restaurant because they are the ones taking care of the customers. Hostesses roam the dining room, bringing refills and running to the counter for dessert orders or more napkins. His team is seeking to create "experiences" not "transactions," he says.

Give the people the experience they want, along with great chicken, and they'll be back for another transaction – even if they didn't have the honor of growing up with the brand.

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