Recently a co-worker of mine asked if I’d been to Pollo Tropical lately. I hadn’t. The last time I mentioned them in a post was when I found out they eliminated the large drink size and only had medium cups. I think I’d been back since then, but not very recently.
My co-worker rattled off a list of things that had changed, for the worse. The list included:
- No real plates. Now they use styrofoam plates.
- No real silverware. Only plastic forks and knives.
- No table service. You have to get your food from the counter.
- No bussing service. You have to clear your own table.
- No onions or lime on your chicken. They only have the flavor from the marinade.
- Chicken breasts are smaller.
That’s a pretty significant change and I didn’t believe it. Even after my visit today to confirm this, I still don’t believe it. I want to visit a second location and ensure this isn’t chain-wide. If it is, well…
So today, I did go to Pollo Tropical for lunch. I stood in line sporting a defensive posture with my arms across my chest as I could immediately verify at least some items from that list. When I got to the counter, I grilled the cashier on the changes.
“You’ve updated your menu?”
“No, everything still there. We’ve added blah blah blah and there’s blah blah blah.”
“Never mind. I see what I normally get. I’ll have that and a drink.”
As she’s punching it into the register, I begin the interrogation.
“So, no plates anymore? just styrofoam?”
“And only plasticware?”
I look at the sign on the counter near the wall that says you have to listen for your number and pick up your order. “You have to pick your food up now?”
“So, do you have to clear your table now?”
“Well, we only have the one trash can in the back… so…”
”So. It’s not as nice.”
“It’s not as nice.”
“Oh, yeah.” You’re not listening to me at all, are you?
As I filled my drink and got my plastic knife and fork, I noticed one other change. Each table used to have its own napkin dispenser. No more. Also, I had noticed while I was standing in line, that they removed the community bulletin board from their wall. How curious.
As I stood and waited for my food impatiently, the customer in front of me came back up and complained that his side dish, maybe fries, maybe plantains, was “super stale”. The person behind the counter took them and threw them out, probably saying he’d get him some fresh food. That’s not promising.
My food came out and I was able to confirm no toppings on the chicken and smaller portions. I took the tray with my white styrofoam 3-portion plate to a table and ate my meal in subdued silence. The change in atmosphere was significant. Pollo used to be at an atmospheric level of Panera Bread. Now it was like a no-name food court place. I mean, to use generic styrofoam plates and not even branded plates is a major faux pas in brand image.
In my quest for answers, I searched online and ended up getting info straight from the horse’s mouth: The 3rd quarter corporate earnings call. In this conference call you hear from all the top people at the company and what they are proud of and what they are planning to make the company profitable in the future. I read a lot of things in that transcript that worried me for the future of Pollo, despite how they touted them as huge improvements. (Fried chicken? What the fuck.)
But here’s the quotes that made me bristle:
We have implemented new labor models at both brands. These models will ensure speed of service and accuracy, enhance hospitality, ensure that we are delivering consistently high-quality food. We have also optimized staffing, so that managers can be intensely focused on the guest experience.
New labor models: They are reducing the amount of work that their employees have to do. This means they don’t do table service anymore. They also don’t have to wash dishes anymore. This means they can…
Optimize staffing: Cut their workforce and/or reduce the number of labor hours. The only benefit of this is reduced cost, and is completely incompatible with customer service. So, when I read “speed of service” and “enhance[d] hospitality”, I’m going to call bullshit on that one. And I will say they succeeded in optimizing staffing while I was there. One cook, one counter person. No one working the lobby. Manager must have been in the office intensely focused on the guest experience. Especially when a customer complained about stale food. Super stale food.
One other relevant quote buried in pages of financial bukkake:
We’ve been working on evolving our brand culture so that our teams will truly embrace our high standards for food quality, hospitality and restaurant environment.
Again, with the hospitality, and restaurant environment. I already mentioned my impression of the new and improved environment, but let me say it again. There are two things that are going to come from this major shift. One, the customers that came before (me and my co-worker, and many others) are going to say, “What the fuck happened here?” You can’t maintain a level of service and suddenly lower it thinking no one’s going to notice. The other thing is that new customers are not going to be as impressed with your environment as your older customers were when they first came.
Now if that’s the ballpark you want to play in, that’s fine. But understand you don’t capture Panera Bread-grade customers when your presentation is shit and your service is non-existent.
No tipping allowed. For what? For fucking what?