It doesn’t get more obvious than a digital billboard vehicle circling the neighborhood of an advertisement’s intended target audience.
That was El Pollo Loco Inc.’s (Nasdaq: LOCO) strategy when the Costa Mesa-based fire-grilled, chicken restaurant company launched a campaign earlier this month to turn the heads of the James Beard Foundation for its upcoming awards, in a bid to diversify the foundation’s nominees and also highlight Hispanics within the restaurant and food service industry.
The “For Your Consideration” campaign—a cheeky nod to the billboards and other advertisements taken out around Hollywood during awards season—launched last month in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month and included a full-page ad in The New York Times, as well as spotlights on 11 notable Hispanic chefs on El Pollo Loco’s social media.
One local was among the chefs that El Pollo Loco spotlighted in its campaign: Loreta Ruiz, owner and chef of La Vegana Mexicana, whose plant-based Mexican offerings are found at the 4th Street Market in Downtown Santa Ana.
Capping off the marketing campaign was a digital billboard truck that drove around Greenwich Village, the neighborhood in New York City where the James Beard House is located.
“Every Hispanic Heritage Month El Pollo Loco feels a reason to do something for the betterment of the Hispanic community, because 80% of our employees are Hispanic,” El Pollo Loco CEO and President Bernard Acoca told the Business Journal.
This year focused on the disconnect between the number of positions Hispanics account for in the industry in relation to the recognition within the industry, particularly in what Acoca said are “the higher echelons.”
Nationally, 27.7% of the restaurant and food service industry last year was made up of those who identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hispanics account for 22.6% of the nation’s executive chefs, according to job and career data platform Zippia Inc.
“Sometimes it’s purely just an awareness issue. Sometimes it’s an education issue and I think the role that El Pollo Loco serves here is education and awareness,” Acoca said of what may be the cause of underrepresentation.
El Pollo Loco, valued at about $640 million as of last week, is the fourth largest restaurant chain based in OC by employee count, with an estimated 600 local workers.
The company’s shares have risen 7% since Acoca’s hiring March 12, 2018.
Changing the Playing Field
El Pollo Loco to prove its point homed in on the James Beard Awards, which saw just 2.4% of nominees in the Best Chef and Outstanding Chef categories identify as Hispanic in 2018.
The awards—the food industry’s version of the Oscars—had been on hold the past two years due to COVID and a review of its policies and procedures launched in August of last year in what the foundation said was a drive to increase diversity and transparency.
The changes, effective for the 2022, call for awards entries, included award committee and subcommittee term limits and a reduction in entry fees among other moves.
The James Beard Foundation was quick to respond to El Pollo Loco’s campaign.
“We welcome community engagement and invite El Pollo Loco to partner with us as we move forward with these changes to ensure that more Latinx chefs, as well as more women and chefs of color, are recognized for their excellence,” the Foundation’s editors said in a statement earlier this month.
“I think, to their credit, they have been very responsive in reaching out to us and asking how we can collaborate to address this issue, which we applaud. So, in a way for us, mission accomplished, right?” Acoca said. “They, in response to all those things that we have done, have reached out to us to say ‘How can we work together to produce a different outcome?’ and we applaud that and we are thankful for that and love the fact that our early overtures have been met with a response. And a positive response at that.”
Acoca said schedules are currently being coordinated so that the two organizations may begin a dialogue. It would mark the first time the chain is in communication with the culinary arts nonprofit.
“This isn’t something that we’ve engaged them on in the past or had contact with them,” Acoca said. “This is something that, quite honestly, we just saw as an opportunity based on the stats, based on the facts, and realized it was something that we, as a player in the restaurant industry, should have a voice on and we should champion. We do this, to be clear, not only to honor those that work in the industry in terms of the 11 amazing chefs that we’re profiling, but also for our own employees.”
To that end, El Pollo Loco launched a “More Chef Hats” grant program that will award $5,000 to one of its employees to go towards their culinary education.