Albert Okura gets ready to eat some of his Juan Pollo chicken at the San Bernardino branch of his restaurant chain. (Photo: George Toshio Johnston)
Juan Pollo’s Albert Okura Is Poised to Expand His Empire Beyond the Inland Empire.
By George Toshio Johnston, Senior Editor, Digital & Social Media
Why did the chicken cross the road? It may have been to escape from Albert Okura. As the owner of the Juan Pollo restaurant chain, he has personally cooked more than a million and a half chickens since opening the first Juan Pollo in 1984.
Now, more than three decades later, the loquacious Sansei from the Wilmington area of Los Angeles will soon himself be crossing a road of sorts: which direction to take the company as it eyes expansion from its San Bernardino County stronghold, where most of the chain’s 25 restaurants are situated, into the more competitive environs in the heart of Los Angeles County.
Unlike that lonely chicken crossing the road, however, Okura will have three traveling companions in his children, sons and recent college grads Kyle (Cal Poly Pomona, marketing) and Aaron (Cal State Fullerton, finance), and daughter Chloe (a junior at Cal State Fullerton majoring in business administration with a concentration in human resource management), all of whom are poised to inherit the family business and take it to the next level.
He also has an ally in his wife, Sella, a Chinese Indonesian immigrant. In his self-published book, “Albert Okura: The Chicken Man With the 50-Year Plan,” Okura wrote that his future brother-in-law, Mexico-born Armando Parro, had married Sella’s sister, Linda Oei. Parro told Okura he thought it was time he got married and suggested Sella, who he knew when she worked at the Carson, Calif., Del Taco he managed before launching Juan Pollo.
He wrote: “ … at the time, I didn’t know Sella possessed natural management abilities. Had I known, we would have gotten married much earlier.”
The move to make inroads into the Los Angeles area is a course that Okura has been plotting for decades.
“Working in the Inland Empire, I’ve been working in the shadows the last 30 years,” Okura said. “It has allowed me to perfect what I’ve been doing. If you go into L.A., you have to be exactly perfect.”
Fortunately, the fare served at Juan Pollo — chickens from a particular supplier, marinated using a custom-made recipe invented by his brother-in-law and rotisserie-cooked to perfection for as long as three hours — is already there, as both restaurant critics and customers agree.
It’s the other factors — upgrading the interiors and menus for Juan Pollo restaurants, making them universally appealing to diverse demographics (be it ethnic or by age), implementing a marketing plan, standardizing procedures across the board — that will be the challenge.
Then there’s the decision whether to follow the path taken by McDonald’s or In-N-Out Burger. Each is tremendously successful, with the former a global corporate behemoth, the latter a profitable and regional family owned chain.
The 50-Year Plan
It’s an important decision, since the competition isn’t Big Macs or Double-Doubles: It’s the charbroiled bird served at El Pollo Loco, which in 2014 became a publicly traded corporation and has more than 400 outlets.
Still, the differing paths taken by the burger chains are important to Okura.
“If you look at McDonald’s and In-N-Out Burger, the story of two Southern California companies, they both started the exact same year,” Okura said. “In-N-Out kept everything to themselves, but Ray Kroc bought out the McDonald brothers and wanted to grow all over America. It became one of the most-recognized name brands in the world.”
Now, at 34 years in business and with the younger Okura kids getting ready to carry on, Albert Okura is ready to take on a new role of being the company’s figurehead, the Stan Lee of the Juan Pollo Gastronomic Universe.
The decision whether to go corporate or keep it in the family is, nevertheless, simmering on the backburner. He says his kids are leaning more toward the In-N-Out model, while he wants to go global.
At 66, Okura says he only has “a certain amount of time” to go the global route, even though he says he comes from long-lived ancestors, and hopes that continuing advances in medical science and eating more chicken than burgers will keep him healthy.
In the early 1990s, he launched a 50-yearlong plan to become the “No. 1 seller of chicken in the world” by age 99 — but if he can achieve that goal earlier, that’s fine with him.
The Early Years
To hear Okura tell it, growing up in suburban Los Angeles was typically American in an almost “Leave It to Beaver” way, mostly shielded from his Nisei parents’ experiences of being incarcerated during World War II.
As a young man, his father, Tsuyoshi, was a star athlete. Later, the elder Okura became the hardest-working man Albert Okura had ever known. But it was Albert’s mother, Chiyoko, who made him get a newspaper route to learn responsibility. That meant he also got a bicycle, which meant mobility, and spending money, which meant comic books and baseball cards, but more importantly, fast food, which became an obsession — and his destiny.
Okura became a fan of Taco Bell, A&W, Der Wienerschnitzel, Foster’s Freeze, Burger King, Jack in the Box and, of course, McDonald’s.
School, on the other hand, was something that held little interest for Okura. After graduating from high school in 1969, he enrolled at Los Angeles Junior College, where he stayed until President Richard Nixon ended the mandatory draft — and then he dropped out.
A job at Burger King led him to train to become a supervisor, and he learned how a fast-food restaurant was managed. Later, he switched to Del Taco, which was founded by a former Taco Bell employee and was known for serving burgers as well as tacos. The knowledge he accrued at both places would help him in the subsequent years when it came time to launch Juan Pollo.
Juan Pollo came about in part thanks to an “uncle,” George Komatsu, the brother of Ben Komatsu, who had married Okura’s father’s sister. Uncle George was a savant with numbers who’d moved to California from Arizona and found success in the grocery business.
According to Okura’s book, Uncle George, who was the source for the necessary capital, “was instrumental at getting Juan Pollo off the ground.”
From Burgers to Chicken
Because he loved hamburgers, Okura idolized Kroc, enjoyed McDonald’s and worked for Burger King. But when he was supervising the Del Taco in Carson, Calif., circa 1981, Okura took notice when a new restaurant began construction nearby.
Six months later, it opened for business. Its name: El Pollo Loco, and it was a sensation. But he was a burger guy, not a chicken guy. He says he never liked, for example, Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Days after the grand opening, nevertheless, a curious Okura went in and tried it. It wasn’t deep-fried, it was charbroiled, on large open-flame grills in view of the customers. To his surprise, he loved it. Something told Okura that chicken wasn’t just in his future, it was the future.
Turns out the Denny’s restaurant chain also loved it and bought the U.S. rights from El Pollo Loco’s founder — and made, according to Okura, a huge mistake by changing the marinade’s recipe by reducing the salt so it was more “heart healthy.” They also changed the menu, raised prices and, by 1999, Denny’s had sold it.
By 1983, Okura was looking beyond Del Taco, and the opportunity came when he learned via family connections that his Uncle George had a shopping center in Ontario that had a vacant restaurant on the property. Inspired by El Pollo Loco, with start-up capital from Uncle George via his son, Robert, and help from his future brother-in-law, Parro, Okura dove in.
But rather than go the charbroiling route, Parro persuaded him to cook the chicken rotisserie style because it saved space compared with charbroiling it like El Pollo Loco did, and also because he had grown up in Mexico with rotisserie-cooked chicken.
It was a choice that made all the difference in the world, setting it apart from El Pollo Loco by tasting better and keeping longer as leftovers by not drying out. That led to the slogan: “The Best Tasting Chicken.”
There was also the issue of what to name it: Don Pollo, the first choice, was already in use, so it became Juan Pollo. For a mascot, instead of a creepy crowned king, a fawning clown or an old goateed man in a white suit, they used a cartoon chicken named Juan.
Over the years, there would be obstacles to overcome and disasters to learn from. There would also be good luck, like the rave review from a newspaper restaurant critic who never reviewed fast food, but made an exception because he loved the taste of Juan Pollo’s chicken.
All along, Okura kept moving forward and growing the business, opening new locations, creating a company called Chino Restaurant Supply to supply the restaurants and finally becoming a legal franchising company, setting the stage for future growth.
Never one to let a marketing opportunity go to waste, Okura kept his name and that of Juan Pollo in the news by doing things some might consider publicity stunts, while others might call it savvy marketing.
The first opportunity came in 1998, when he learned that the site of the original McDonald’s restaurant at 1398 N. E St. in San Bernardino was for sale for $135,000.
As a fan and student of McDonald’s and instinctively knowing the publicity value of such a move, Okura bought the site so it could be the main office of Juan Pollo and serve as an unofficial, free-to-the-public “museum” for McDonald’s memorabilia donated by former employees of the original restaurant and McDonald’s fans. The McDonald’s Corp. wasn’t amused, but there was little it could do other than make sure its trademarked intellectual property wasn’t misused.
McDonald’s probably wasn’t too fond of the 2016 movie “The Founder,” which essentially showed Kroc gaining control of the restaurant from the McDonald’s brothers, either, but it drove even more visitors to Okura’s historic site.
Another opportunity came in 2005 when Okura learned that another old Route 66 town, namely Amboy, Calif., was up for sale. Remembering how an old business mentor named Ray Millman regretted not buying a town when he had the opportunity years earlier, Okura ultimately paid $425,000 to buy Amboy (and the surrounding 500 acres), which began to dry up and die almost instantly after Interstate 40 was completed in 1973. (See Pacific Citizen No. 3036, May 20-June 2, 2005)
Essentially a living ghost town, Amboy is a place to gas up the car, use the restroom, buy some snacks and look at the old Roy’s Motel and Café while on the way to Laughlin, Nev.
“More and more people are going every year because of social media,” Okura said. “When I bought the property, there was no social media, no smartphones — it’s going like crazy now,” he said.
Like the historic site of the first McDonald’s, Amboy attracts tourists, many from Europe, interested in old style Americana.
It remains to be seen whether Juan Pollo will someday reach the heights of Americana achieved by McDonald’s, but to Okura, the future looks bright, especially with his 50-year plan, not only in the United States but also outside the country in places such as China and India.
“I have something that people will want in all these other countries,” he said. “I have an opportunity for people to go make money. In most of these countries, there is no middle class, and there are all these millions of people wanting to get into the middle class. They’re either wealthy, or they’re poor. They could pool their money together and open a franchise from Juan Pollo, where you can’t do that with McDonald’s or Burger King. They’re too expensive. You have to be a millionaire.
“That’s the business model Ray Kroc started,” Okura continued. “When he bought the company, he wanted average Americans to go make money, and at the same time, he provided jobs for the young people and he provided inexpensive food for people like me who had no money. He was like the Henry Ford of the food business, where he discounted, passed the savings on to the consumer and whoever ran the stores made money.”
You may call him a dreamer, but don’t call Okura loco. That’s the other guys.
Editor’s Note: A limited number of copies of the book “Albert Okura: The Chicken Man With the 50-Year Plan,” signed by its author, are available for P.C. readers. To obtain a copy, enter the drawing by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and in the subject line enter “Chicken Man” by June 15. Please include your contact information. Winners will be notified by email.