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Ones to Watch | By Sabrina Davis

Charo Chicken

When Moe Bonakdar, an Iranian immigrant, opened Charo Chicken in 1984 he was making a leap from the pizza business to a concept he thought was more current and would attract customers looking for the fresh and flavorful. Over the past 22 years, Bonakdar has seen his gamble pay off. The concept is as current as ever, and the growing chain is now proving to be a worthy competitor for its role model, El Pollo Loco.

Bonakdar liked what he saw in El Pollo Loco and modeled his first store after the flame-grilled chicken chain. “We’re really no competition for them,” says Charo Chicken President and CEO Ray Perry. “They are huge, at 330 stores, but we compete well with them head-to-head at many of our locations.” Charo has 27 units and expects to add 10 or 12 more this year.

Charo grew slowly until recent years, adding stores as demand warranted. With four successful locations, Bonakdar launched his first franchise location in 1999 and six more by 2002. He needed help managing the franchise operation and turned to friend and former El Pollo Loco President and CEO Perry, who, with 42 years in the restaurant industry, considers himself a turnaround specialist with a focus on fine tuning operations and repositioning chains to improve profit margins.

Perry oversaw Charo’s redesign, beginning in 2004, creating a contemporary setting with bright colors, upbeat music, and modern materials. “The look before was dark with lots of flames—a hodgepodge of decorating,” Perry says. “Customers tell us they like the new look and feel. It’s a place they want to be seen.” Equally important these days is the impression potential franchisees are getting. “Franchisees buy with their eye,” Perry says. “Once they’re in one of these new stores, they say, ‘I’ve gotta have one of these.’”

The new look includes bright walls and tile floors in yellows, purples, and deep reds; Corian counters; free standing beverage and salsa bars; and an open kitchen.

The main attraction, of course, is the fire-grilled chicken. Charo’s chicken is never frozen and is prepared daily. “We do not marinate. We use hand-rubbed spices. When it comes off the grill, we coat it with our signature lemon garlic butter sauce,” Perry says. “It’s a unique flavor.”

The top seller is bone-in chicken, specifically the eight-piece meal with two side dishes, salsa, and tortillas, priced at $14.99. Side choices include rice, pinto or black beans, potato salad, cole slaw, guacamole, and corn on the cob.

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