Why You Don't See Pollo Tropical Anymore

Before it started disappearing from the face of the earth, Pollo Tropical had a pretty good run. The fast-food chain was founded in Miami in 1988. Its menu soon became well-liked among Floridians for its citrus-marinated grilled chicken and sides such as sweet plantains, fried yucca, and red or black beans — all of which are popular Latin-Caribbean foods (via My Dominican Kitchen). Pollo Tropical's menu items are common in Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Costa Rican cuisine and among the dishes of nearby countries. Unlike more popular chains such as Taco Bell or Del Taco, Pollo Tropical provides a way to have Latin food that isn't specifically Mexican. But sadly for fans of the brand, there aren't many locations left.

The story of Pollo Tropical's shrinking franchise is more of a gradual rise and fall rather than a sudden decline. Even though the chain opened more and more restaurants in Florida after 1988, it took a long time to expand outside of the state. When Pollo Tropical did branch out to other parts of the U.S., it didn't go well. Then, the chain was hit with a handful of other problems which had a negative impact. As of 2022, its locations are once again confined to Florida — and there aren't many restaurants there either. To find out why you don't see Pollo Tropical anymore, keep reading.

Plans to expand the chain were unsuccessful

The heft of Pollo Tropical's issues began after 2010. After the Latin-Caribbean chain went strong for a few decades, some shifts started. A big one was expanding outside of Florida. This plan first went into motion after Pollo Tropical's parent company, Carrols Restaurant Group, created a spin-off organization called Fiesta Restaurant Group in 2012 (via Carrols). This new mini-group — owning only Pollo Tropical and Taco Cabana — was meant to focus on these two Latin brands. However, the formation of the secondary organization would soon lead to decisions that wouldn't have the best impact on Pollo Tropical.

In 2014, Fiesta Restaurant Group announced that Pollo Tropical would expand west of the Mississippi (via Business Wire). The Latin-Caribbean fast-food chain opened around ten restaurants in Texas. This move made some sense because Pollo Tropical's sibling brand, Taco Cabana, was already based in the state, where it was experiencing success. However, as Restaurant Business explains, Pollo Tropical's Texas restaurants did not do well. This may be because Latin-Caribbean cuisine vastly differs from the local Tex-Mex food; Taco Cabana has a menu more familiar to locals, while Pollo Tropical does not. For a few years after 2012, Pollo Tropical kept opening restaurants in additional states, such as Tennessee and Georgia (via Cision PR Newswire). But this batch of locations outside of Florida would not last long.

International expansion plans also failed

Just after the formation of Fiesta Restaurant Group, Pollo Tropical ramped up its international expansion plans. In March 2012, the grilled chicken chain opened its first eatery in Costa Rica (per South Florida Business Journal). As a region known for Latin-Caribbean dishes like those found on the franchise's menu, this made sense. The chain hoped to open at least five more locations in this part of the world (via QSR). Before then, the chain had existing restaurants outside of the U.S., in countries such as Puerto Rico, Venezuela, the Bahamas, and others. But in 2012 and the years following, Pollo Tropical opened several more international locations — rapidly. The rate at which these launched was maybe too much for the brand.

The same month it announced its Costa Rican plans, Pollo Tropical opened its third location in Venezuela, another region with Latin-Caribbean cuisine, per Business Wire. Later, it opened its first Asia location in Delhi, India (via Inside Retail). According to QSR, in 2016, the chain expanded to another country, opening its first location in Guyana. While it seemed everything was going well for a few years, all Pollo Tropical eateries outside of the U.S. would eventually close. Like its attempt to grow within the States, its world-conquering plans were unsuccessful. Per Pollo Tropical's website, the only locations left are in America.

Customers thought Pollo Tropical was becoming less authentic

A drop in customer loyalty may have also played a part in Pollo Tropical's downfall. Despite being well-liked initially, there was a turning point in the public opinion of the place. After about two decades in business, people began criticizing the brand for becoming less authentic. In 2011, a critic for the Miami New Times said that Pollo Tropical's food was slowly becoming more "American" than it used to be. In their review, the writer said that the chain's turn away from Latin fare was off-putting to loyal customers. Although this seemed like a possible attempt for Pollo Tropical to bring in new diners, we don't think it worked out in the restaurant's favor.

Some of the more hated items include waffle fries and Cuban hot dogs, the latter of which inspired ridicule on Reddit. Users on the thread criticized Pollo Tropical's Cuban dogs for being expensive and inauthentic. One person responded, "Get the real deal Colombian one from Los Perros or La Perrada de Edgar if you're on the beach." Of the waffle fries, one person on Yelp compared them to "bricks."

All Texas locations were closed by 2017

As the chain struggled, it began to downsize the franchise. In 2016, Pollo Tropical closed eight restaurants in Texas (via Nation's Restaurant News). These establishments had only been in the Lone Star State since 2012, at the earliest. During these closures, Pollo Tropical also shuttered one location in Nashville, Tennessee, and another in Atlanta. During this period, the chain generally suffered: Between February 2015 and late 2017, its shares were down by 75% (per Seeking Alpha). 

By the end of 2017, Pollo Tropical said goodbye to Texas forever. According to Restaurant Business, it closed its remaining restaurants in Dallas and Austin. The decision to shut down all these locations came with an announcement that the chain would turn to more natural ingredients to improve its food and increase hiring measures to bump up service quality. Although, these statements seemed a bit false and desperate; just earlier that year, Fiesta Restaurant Group had tried to sell its two brands but couldn't find a buyer.

The next year, all Georgia locations closed their doors

The late 2010s were not a good time for Pollo Tropical. Just one year after the chain disappeared from Texas, it announced the closure of all its Georgia establishments. At the end of 2018, Fiesta Restaurant Group revealed that it was closing a whopping 23 stores, per Restaurant Business. These were divided between the parent company's two brands, Pollo Tropical and Taco Cabana, with 14 belonging to Pollo Tropical. Nine of the 14 restaurants were in the Atlanta area, explains What Now Atlanta

The Fiesta Restaurant Group tried to play the whole thing off. In a press release, company leaders called the late 2018 downsizing all a part of the plan: "We will enter 2019 with a keen focus on building traffic, improving margins and rebranding Pollo Tropical for future expansion outside of South Florida," said CEO Richard Stockinger. "We believe that these steps will build the foundation for growth beginning in 2020," he added. But as we now know, 2020 turned out to be a bad year for the restaurant industry.

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic made staying open difficult

Pollo Tropical planned to expand outside of Florida in 2020. But as luck would have it, the coronavirus pandemic hit, putting a pause on the chain's plans. However, the franchise started optimistically. On March 16, 2020, it began a promotion offering free delivery until April 3, 2020 (via WFLA 8). But we all know that the pandemic did not end there. Pollo Tropical had to cut back on service instead of expanding it or providing deals to customers.

In July, the franchise closed its dining rooms temporarily due to the summer coronavirus surge. According to Nation's Restaurant News, by halfway through 2020, it was already the second time Pollo Tropical had done so. By limiting the ability to dine in, the chain put its sales at risk. The company also had to instate COVID-19 safety protocols in response to the pandemic. While it may have helped some customers and employees stay healthy, these measures harmed Pollo Tropical's financial standing.

Hurricane Ian forced some locations to close temporarily

This year, Florida-based Pollo Tropical faced another setback: Hurricane Ian. The tropical storm tore through the Southeast in late September 2022. Most of the impact was felt by Florida: More than 4 million people in the state lost power (via NOAA). According to The New York Times, cities like Fort Myers, Port Charlotte, and Bonita Springs were the hardest hit. Of course, with all of Pollo Tropical's restaurants concentrated in Florida, the fast-food chain had to take precautions to protect its businesses.

Per Bloomberg, restaurants within the storm's path were closed on September 27, and all locations were closed on September 28. Between September 29 and October 3, 38 stores were shuttered due to utility outages and damage from the hurricane. By October 4, four restaurants remained closed due to the storm's impact. The company tried to keep its cool, reassuring everyone that Pollo Tropical had insurance for this type of thing, but it didn't help the chain. Even if it didn't sustain major damage from Hurricane Ian, its closures lasted around a week, which could not have been good for business.

The chain faces ongoing staffing issues

The restaurant industry's staffing crisis is still raging, even two years after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Per WWTW, there were over 1 million open jobs in the food industry in late 2022, accounting for around 11% of the total openings available. And Pollo Tropical has experienced its share of hiring issues: According to Business Insider Africa, in 2021, the chain said it had remedied its previous understaffing problems by improving benefits and raising wages. However, it had to increase prices by 6% to do so.

To make matters worse, none of these measures appeared to fix Pollo Tropical's employment woes. Staffing problems persisted in 2022, so the chain decided to raise prices once again in response. It planned to up costs by another 5% (via QSR), but this still hasn't helped the franchise gather needed workers. Additional recruitment programs have been instituted to bring in more employees, so we'll see if the chain can straighten things out. But in the meantime, being short of staff is not having the best impact on service.

Employees don't seem to love working there

To add to the staffing issues, the people who work at Pollo Tropical don't seem to love it. On Glassdoor, the fast-food chain has little more than three out of five stars. This unpleasant rating comes from the reviews of the franchise's employees. Based on what they have to say, it's not a good place to work. For the cons of being a Pollo Tropical worker, one person wrote, "low pay, hectic environment, sometimes management can be unreal."

On Indeed, the employees' perspectives didn't make the chain look much better. The complaints concerned pay, organizational issues, poor management, and staffing problems. "They couldn't afford to pay the crew what they deserved," wrote one user. "The work environment and family culture were lacking," said another. "Horrible," "stressful," and "a killer to any human" were some other words used to describe working at Pollo Tropical. 

The chain's reputation for not fulfilling employees didn't do the brand any favors. It may have played a part in other issues the franchise experienced down the line, including staffing shortages, service complaints, and health code violations.

Multiple restaurants have received health code violations

Aside from company-wide issues, individual Pollo Tropical restaurants have also experienced problems. Over the years, multiple locations have received health code violations. In 2017, the Orlando Sentinel reported that the Pollo Tropical at 11860 E. Colonial Dr. in Orlando, Florida, was shuttered due to a failed health inspection. Food safety violations included food being left out overnight, causing it to reach unsafe temperatures. In 2018, per The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the 3385 Buford Dr. establishment in Buford, Georgia also failed its health inspection. The issues experienced there were focused on employee cleanliness. Health inspectors said that individuals weren't washing their hands enough, among other problems.

As recently as 2021, more Pollo Tropical restaurants failed health inspections. In June, the 5425 West Atlantic Blvd. location in Margate, Florida was closed due to flies in the kitchen and multiple other health violations (via Local 10.com). In July, the Pollo Tropical at 3085 45th St. in West Palm Beach was in disarray (via The Palm Beach Post), and workers were not changing disposal gloves as often as necessary. 

All of these problems haven't made Pollo Tropical popular with customers

Perhaps because of the laundry list of issues Pollo Tropical has experienced within the past decade, visitors to the restaurant seem to have no problem expressing their negative thoughts about the chain. These complaints are usually focused on one particular location or from a specific person, but know that one-star reviews for the franchise are not uncommon.

"Dirty kitchen, bad service, and can't even get my order correct," said one person about the Homestead, Florida restaurant. "This place is terrible...undercooked rice, raw chicken, slow service, etc.," wrote another customer of a Miami location. On Reddit, one exasperated patron said, "Pollo Tropical was out of chicken...I just want to commiserate over the downhill climb of this once-great Miami institution." A reviewer of a Fort Myers location said, "Dirtiest restaurant I have ever been to. We should have left. No tables were clean."

There are fewer than 200 locations left

As of 2022, you're not likely to come across a Pollo Tropical location — unless you are in Florida. Even if you find yourself there, you may not see as many restaurants as expected. There are fewer than 200 Pollo Tropical restaurants left in the state. Per ScrapeHero, around 144 of those eateries remain. According to the company's website, these places are spread throughout cities such as Jacksonville, Gainesville, Tampa, St. Petersburg, and more. But even with over 100 locations, Pollo Tropical has far fewer businesses than its competitors.

It even underperforms fellow Florida-born businesses. Franchises like Red Lobster, Burger King, and Olive Garden — all of which, like Pollo Tropical, started in Florida — are doing better than the Latin-Caribbean chain. There are more than 800 Olive Gardens700 Red Lobsters, and 19,000 Burger Kings. Pollo Tropical is virtually nonexistent compared to these fast-food chains, but we hope to see that change. Maybe one day, when the company has fixed its issues of staffing shortages, menu authenticity, health code violations, management hurdles, and more, it can bounce back. Until then, it's not a place to get a quick rice bowl, avocado salad, Cuban sandwich, flan, key lime pie, rack of ribs, or crispy chicken platter — it's one of those chains that you never see around anymore.