The Untold Truth Of Pollo Tropical

The fast food chicken sandwich wars are still raging (though perhaps not at the intensity that they once were), but there is one chicken joint that didn't get quite as much attention as the KFC and Popeyes of the world, and that chain is Pollo Tropical. You won't find Pollo Tropical everywhere — as of right now, the restaurant can only be found in Florida. If you have tried it before, you know that it's famous for its Latin-inspired cuisine, delicious chicken, and relatively healthy cuisine.

But unless you've done a deep-dive on the history of this restaurant before, you may not realize the whole story. At one time, it looked like this restaurant was headed for the global market on a large scale. In recent years, though, the tide has turned, and now, it seems like the company is just fighting for survival. How did it get to this point, and what mistakes did the leadership make along the way? If you're curious about what this famous South Florida chain is all about, you've come to the right place. This is the untold truth of Pollo Tropical.

Pollo Tropical is famous for its citrus-marinated chicken

If you know any Spanish at all, then you probably already know that "pollo" is the Spanish word for "chicken." So, "Pollo Tropical" literally means "tropical chicken." And that name makes sense when you find out what the restaurant specializes in: citrus-marinated chicken. While most other chicken places prominently feature fried chicken with the grilled variety just offered as an afterthought, that's not what's going on here. Instead, the fire-grilled chicken is the star of the show. Whether you just want to get a chicken breast or you'd prefer to opt for a whole half of a chicken, you have options here. While the chicken platters are a huge part of the menu, you can also find bowls, sandwiches, soups, salads, and more.

However, this place offers more than one type of food, so you're not stuck with grilled chicken if it's just not your thing. There are some breaded chicken menu items for those who prefer a little crunch and aren't looking for the healthiest item on the menu. And the roast pork is a popular menu item, and since you won't find pork on many other fast food menus, we definitely think it's worth a try when you visit.

You'll only find U.S. Pollo Tropical locations in Florida

Wondering why you've never been to a Pollo Tropical before? Well, that's because you're only going to see these restaurants in Florida in the U.S. It all started in Miami in 1988. At the time, most fast food places were all offering the same thing: hamburgers and the occasional chicken sandwich. But the founders had a better idea for a restaurant that was a bit out of the ordinary for the time: They wanted the business to be centered around Caribbean-inspired food, per Restaurant Business Online.

When you know that, it makes sense why the locations are clustered in the Sunshine State. There is a large Latin population there, and the owners probably figured that that population would be their target audience, considering the food they planned on making.

The restaurants are scattered all over the state, but you'll see them most heavily concentrated in the Miami area, where it all started. The Tampa, Jacksonville, and Orlando areas also have a ton of Pollo Tropicals within a small radius. Therefore, if you're interested in trying out this fast casual joint for yourself, now you know where to go.

Pollo Tropical tried to expand to other states, but it ultimately failed

You may be wondering why Pollo Tropical hasn't tried to expand outside of the state of Florida. Well, funny thing ... they did. However, it was less than successful in the long term. Back in 2018, Restaurant Business Online asserted that at the height of the company's success, circa 2016, the restaurant had a whopping 209 locations. However, just two years later, that number had dropped to 166 locations — a 20% decrease just in the course of two years.

In 2014, the company decided that it wanted to try to move into Texas. It also expanded to other states, like New York, Illinois, Georgia, and Tennessee. In fact, there were even locations outside of the United States, in countries like Panama, some of which are still open.

But it didn't take long for Pollo Tropical to realize their expansion wasn't working. Therefore, they were then forced to pull back and retreat into their home state of Florida. While the chain's locations in that state may still be going strong, it's clear that Pollo Tropical didn't have staying power in a more diverse market.

There was once a Pollo Tropical in Delhi, India

While most of Pollo Tropical's push to expand took place within the United States, they attempted to make it out of the country as well. As you can imagine, the Caribbean and other Latin regions were targeted, since the food was based on this kind of cuisine. However, the company clearly didn't want to limit themselves because they also attempted to expand to India. They had a location in New Delhi, Delhi, which seemed to get mixed reviews.

Some customers viewed this restaurant not as Latin-inspired cuisine but instead as "American-style chicken." However, one reviewer of the restaurant didn't seem to think it was a success: "It seemed to be nothing but a big bowl with rice, kidney beans, and black pulses ... or rather the staple Indian diet of Rajma-Chawal or Kaali-Daal Chawal. The chicken pieces were far too few, and their taste was all lost in the rice, etc. Not sure if the people running the show are aware that such kind of food is best available in any street shop in India!"

It looks like the company didn't do their research when it came to learning about what the Indian market wanted out of an "American-style" restaurant, so we're not surprised it couldn't compete with one of the most celebrated street food cultures in the world.

There was an attempt to add more "gringo" items to the menu

In 2011, Miami New Times said that the Latino population in Miami was happy when the first Pollo Tropical appeared in the city. It featured a Latin-inspired menu that was more likeable than other options like Taco Bell. However, according to the writer of this article, it wasn't long before the quality of the food started to slip. They claim that in the '90s, the food there was excellent. But as time went on, the company appeared to start cutting costs, focusing on its bottom line more than quality. 

And then came the time for the fast casual joint to try its luck outside of Miami. With that jump came an attempt to Americanize the food to make it appeal to a broader range of customers: "Clients in New Jersey ... are not eager to stand in line for Pollo's black beans or fried plantains, so items like macaroni and cheese and brown rice have been added to the menu."

It should come as no surprise that this plan wasn't a success, as these locations have since been shut down. Skimping on quality and attempting to make the food more broadly appealing to a wider audience seems to have been a massive failure on the part of Pollo Tropical. As the reviewer noted, "If Pollo Tropical concentrated more on providing good food and less on cheapening their current menu items, perhaps it wouldn't have to try so hard."

People get married in Pollo Tropical parking lots

Love is love, and it's beautiful when two people find each other. When those two people decide that marriage is in their future, there's generally a lot of planning that goes into the wedding ceremony. However, others don't want to fuss with all the superfluous celebrations and just want to get on with married life. For those couples, an elopement just seems to make sense.

While most people might choose to elope at a courthouse or hold a small ceremony at home, at a park, or in a garden, others want to go with something ... less conventional. And for couples like that, getting married in a Pollo Tropical parking lot may just be the answer. Yes, you heard that right.

On Valentine's Days in the past, the restaurant has offered free weddings in its parking lots. Sure, a free wedding is definitely appealing, even if a parking lot matrimony probably isn't what most people dream of for their special day. In 2014, Suzanne Leroux and Matt Solly decided to get married in the restaurant's parking lot. Why? Because that's where they had enjoyed their first meal together.

A Pollo Tropical parking lot wedding may not be for everyone, but for some happy couples, it's the perfect location to begin a life of wedded bliss.

The owners' friends and family helped fund Pollo Tropical in the beginning

Pollo Tropical might be a big business now, but that doesn't mean it started off that way. In fact, Larry Harris, one of the brothers who founded the restaurant, was only 27 when the first Pollo Tropical opened, per Forbes. However, opening a restaurant costs a lot of money, and most 27-year-olds don't have a huge cache of money just sitting around waiting for them to start a business. Therefore, the brothers had to get help.

Luckily, they seem to have had a pretty strong support system around them. Between investments from family and friends, the brothers were able to collect $300,000 to start their business. That helped them get a solid start, but it wouldn't take the business to its most successful point. However, the restaurant on the outskirts of Little Havana in Miami started doing well right away, and soon, investors were trying to get in on the action as well.

Who knows if Pollo Tropical would have ever gotten off the ground if the Harris' family and friends hadn't helped them out?

Employees say Pollo Tropical can be a stressful place to work

Do you ever visit a restaurant and wonder what it's like for the fast food employees who work there? Well, all you have to do is a little searching on the internet to find out where is a top-notch place to work and where is ... not so great. Unfortunately, it seems like Pollo Tropical largely falls into the latter category. Visit the Indeed employee review page for Pollo Tropical, and you'll find some unfortunate opinions from people who have worked there.

One employee titled their review "It's okay I don't know" and wrote this about their experience there: "Just started working and it's very stressful, it's understaffed and always hectic so I'm not sure if I'm going to stay because it's too much for one person to be honest." Another employee listed the cons of the job as "​​No benefits unless you are a manager, nobody really cares about you," while the pros were simply "bathroom breaks." It's not a good sign if a worker thinks bathroom breaks are the best part of their job.

Of course, every Pollo Tropical location undoubtedly has a different work environment, but as a whole, it seems like a stressful place to work.

Pollo Tropical has had some health code violations

It's not uncommon for restaurants to fail to pass a health inspection from time to time. However, whenever it happens, there's probably a part of you that wonders if you should stop eating there — especially if the offense was particularly egregious. If health code violations at restaurants freak you out, you may want to think twice before heading to your local Pollo Tropical. This chain has gotten some pretty bad press about health code violations in their restaurants.

In the summer of 2021, The Palm Beach Post reported that a Pollo Tropical had been shut down due to "high-priority violations," including employees not properly wearing gloves to prepare the food. An Atlanta-area Pollo Tropical failed a health inspection in 2018 partially because employees were not washing their hands on the job. And who could blame them, considering the fact that there wasn't even any soap in the sink? An Orlando Pollo Tropical was closed temporarily in 2017 because it had left food out overnight and some of the dishes were kept at unsafe temperatures (via Orlando Sentinel).

But perhaps the worst report of them all came in December 2020, when over 100 rat droppings were found in a Pollo Tropical in Weston, Florida, including over 50 on the counter itself. Yeah, we don't think you're going to find us eating at that location anytime soon.

Pollo Tropical is now selling a vegan menu option with Beyond Meat

A few years ago, it was pretty much impossible for a vegetarian to find a decent veggie meal at a fast food spot. And a vegan meal? You could forget about it completely. But luckily for all the veggie lovers out there, times have changed, and more and more restaurants are trying to provide their vegan customers with options that are actually appetizing. (Nobody wants to eat those sad side salads with wilted iceberg lettuce.) And Pollo Tropical is one of them.

According to QSR Magazine, you can now get a vegan picadillo at the chain restaurant. And it's not even an all-bean number. Instead, it's filled with Beyond Meat, the plant-based meat alternative that tastes scarily like the real thing. It's available in both a bowl and a wrap form, so vegans and vegetarians have more than one option to choose from.

Since Pollo Tropical already tends to sell food on the healthier end of the fast food spectrum, we're not surprised that they jumped on the vegan wagon, but we're glad that they did it in such a novel and creative way. After all, we've all seen one too many boring veggie burgers.