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Don Pancho Ochoa: From a Small Shoe Store to the Creation of El Pollo Loco

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Texas Border Business

By Roberto Hugo Gonzalez

Francisco ‘Pancho’ Ochoa, the renowned Mexican businessman who succeeded with El Pollo Loco, Taco Palenque, and Palenque Grill restaurant chains, shares how hard work and family unity led him to capitalize on opportunities and find success. This article, I believe, will unveil the life and journey of this entrepreneur, as we survey his humble roots and his relentless perseverance as he developed his strategic vision. He is known as ‘Don Pancho’, a title of respect he has earned.

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Born into a large family in Sinaloa, Mexico, Ochoa learned from a young age the value of hard work and customer service. His father, an entrepreneur who ran small grocery stores, taught him the basics of the trade. But the most meaningful lessons came when a hurricane devastated his home state and forced him to drop out of high school at age 14 to help his family. Since then, Ochoa has not stopped working.

Don Pancho Ochoa centered with some of the McAllen High Schools Knights during the 2nd Annual “Be the Change Leadership Conference event. Photo Roberto Hugo Gonzalez

In his early adulthood, Ochoa and his wife operated a small shoe store in their town of Guasave Sinaloa. However, in late 1974, a new fad changed the course of his life; grilled chicken that was spread open like butterflies. Recalling a teaching from his father – “opportunities are bald, but when they come, don’t let them go,” – Ochoa saw a niche market when a local restaurant, popular for its roasted chickens, limited its offer to 100 chickens per day.

Ochoa tells how on two occasions he tried to buy roasted chickens in this place, but he always ran into the owner’s response: “I only sell 100 chickens a day. Whoever got some, got some, and whoever didn’t, didn’t.” After his second unsuccessful visit, an idea began to form in Ochoa’s mind, “Pancho, you are going to sell the chickens that this man does not want to sell.”

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At the age of 30, and after talking with his wife, Ochoa decided to sell all of his shoe store’s inventory and switch business. Within 15 days, he had liquidated all of his inventory, and his old shoe store was being transformed into a new restaurant.

With the help of a well-known taco vendor, who accepted the challenge of learning how to grill chicken, Ochoa started his new venture. But he was not satisfied with just replicating the popular restaurant’s recipe. Hearing his new cook’s remarks about the “wet feather” smell, after the third bite of chicken of his competitor, Ochoa devised a unique formula for marinating his chickens. This unique seasoning would give life to what we know today as the characteristic flavor of El Pollo Loco.

Don Pancho Ochoa teaches us a valuable lesson; success lies in identifying opportunities and having the courage to take them.

In the history of every great company, some key moments and decisions define its trajectory. For El Pollo Loco, one such instance involved its founder, Don Francisco ‘Pancho’ Ochoa, a name and a Caguama beer. (In México, there is a popular Caguama beer sold in a large bottle, and it is inexpensive)

A few days before the opening of his chicken restaurant in January 1975, Pancho was discussing possible names for the restaurant with his sign painter, ‘El Bobby’. The initial choice, ‘El Rico Pollo,’ was discarded by Bobby as too cheesy. Bobby suggested that Pancho send for a Caguama and between drinks they considered other names for the restaurant. After disagreeing because Bobby didn’t like any of them, Pancho’s wife’s uncle who was passing by the business suggested the name “El Pollo Loco,” inspired by a barbecue restaurant called “El Caballo Loco” (the crazy horse in Spanish). Despite Pancho’s initial doubts, Bobby agreed that it was a good name. Finally, the wall of the place was painted with “El Pollo Loco,” and the flagship of what would become a fast-food empire was born. 

El Pollo Loco opened its doors on January 6, 1975. Don Pancho celebrates this anniversary every year by eating roasted chicken in Guasave, the place where it all began. It’s his personal way of remembering the company’s humble beginnings.

After finding his first big opportunity selling roasted chickens, Don Pancho continued to take advantage of other opportunities that came his way. In 1980, El Pollo Loco ventured into the Los Angeles market, a decision that resulted in some of the most memorable experiences for Don Pancho and his family.

In Los Angeles, the choice of the first El Pollo Loco location was a gamble.

Despite being located in a predominantly Central American area, where Mexican food was not the norm, the restaurant was a smashing success from day one. Part of his success can be attributed to his clever publicity, which read, “If the colonel knew the recipe for El Pollo Loco, he’d be a general by now.” This slogan resonated with customers and helped cement the brand in the U.S. market.

Unfortunately, due to disagreements with his partner, the company was forced to sell El Pollo Loco in the United States to Denny’s in 1983. Despite this setback, the El Pollo Loco brand thrived and now has more than 500 locations in the United States and more than 20,000 employees.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, Don Pancho decided to share the El Pollo Loco brand with his brothers. His children, who were very young at the time, now run part of the company in Mexico together with their family.

Finally, a remarkable curiosity of this stage of El Pollo Loco is that Brad Pitt, before becoming a famous actor, worked disguised as a chicken mascot to attract customers. This anecdote shows how, throughout its history, El Pollo Loco has been more than just a restaurant. It has become a place for opportunities and memorable experiences for many people, from its founders to its employees and customers.

200 students from the Rio Grande Valley including Port Isabel. Schools participating: Pharr San Juan Alamo (PSJA), T- STEM, the 3 mission schools – Vets, Eagles, and Collegiate, also, Progreso. A $500 scholarship was gifted to a senior student. Photo by Roberto Hugo Gonzalez

After the sale of El Pollo Loco in the United States, Don Pancho and his family continued to expand the company, this time in Asia. He partnered with Denny’s to open El Pollo Loco locations in Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. This global expansion demonstrated the strength and versatility of the brand and its ability to adapt to markets around the world.

Don Pancho personally traveled to Japan and Malaysia to oversee the new openings, and his young children accompanied him on numerous occasions. The international experience gave the family a new perspective on the business and allowed them to learn and adapt to different cultures and culinary tastes.

The history of El Pollo Loco is a testament to how a small idea can become a global phenomenon with the right combination of entrepreneurial vision, audacity, and perseverance. Despite the obstacles and difficulties, the company has shown a remarkable ability to reinvent itself and grow.

Today, his son, Francisco “Pancho” Ochoa Jr. runs Grupo Palenque, and other members of the Ochoa family continue to run the El Pollo Loco brand in Mexico. In all, the company has extended its presence beyond its native Guasave to other continents and continues to grow and evolve in America.

The last part of the story of Don Pancho and El Pollo Loco is full of valuable lessons for any potential entrepreneur. He talks about the importance of adaptability, creativity, the courage to face challenges and the ability to seize opportunities when they present themselves.

As Don Pancho once told middle school students from the Hidalgo County region listening to his talk, “That was the beginning. I recognized the opportunity when I heard it ringing like a bell, and I knew it was the opportunity I was looking for to start a business.” This is a lesson we can all learn from the fascinating story of Don Pancho and El Pollo Loco.

Don Pancho continued his talk with a thank you note, leaving a lasting impression on his young audience. It was evident that his story had touched many hearts, motivating them to follow their dreams and pursue the opportunities that presented themselves.

For the businessman and his family, Taco Palenque and El Pollo Loco Mexico are much more than businesses. They are a testament to his resilience, vision, and dedication to customer service. Each restaurant represents the family’s love for food, culture, and community. And through his leadership and his family’s work ethic, Don Pancho had left a lasting legacy, not only for his children and grandchildren, but also for all those who had crossed his path.

Don Pancho Ochoa’s story is an inspiring testimony of how a simple desire to improve can become a reality with vision, perseverance, and dedication. Whether it is adapting to a new market in the United States, taking your brand to Asia, or listening and adapting to the tastes of your customers, Don Pancho demonstrated that the true key to success is to never stop learning and growing.

His stories and life lessons have impacted many people, both in their community and beyond. His legacy lives on in every restaurant at El Pollo Loco Mexico, Palenque Grill and Taco Palenque, and in every employee and customer who have been a part of his extraordinary story.

More than a successful businessman, Don Pancho is a teacher of life, a leader who leads people to greatness through his example. His story continues to inspire many, passing on the lessons and principles he has instilled throughout his journey: love for a job well done, respect for others, passion for service, and the importance of pursuing and leveraging the opportunities.

The story of Don Pancho Ochoa is a testament to resilience, vision, and dedication that is sure to resonate with future generations. And through his life and his work, he continues to show us what is possible when we have the courage to follow our dreams and seize the opportunities that come our way.

The origin of Taco Palenque is truly another tale of vision, perseverance, and the entrepreneurial spirit. Don Pancho Ochoa, having already founded El Pollo Loco and successfully expanded it in Mexico and into the United States, had his mind set on another great idea: a fresh, authentic taco restaurant with a unique twist.

His moment of enlightenment came during his visit to a renowned taqueria in San Antonio, when he was denied the ability to customize his taco order to his liking. That’s when he realized that there was an unsatisfied demand in the Mexican fast food restaurant market: the option of customization and more personal customer service.

The idea of Taco Palenque began to take shape: to offer authentic and fresh Mexican food that could be personalized according to the customer’s preferences. In addition, he wanted to ensure that each dish was made on the spot, maintaining the authenticity and freshness of the ingredients.

After finding suitable land, he set to work developing his new business. He drew on family recipes from her mother’s and grandmother’s kitchen, giving them a modern twist while maintaining their authenticity.

The first Taco Palenque opened on July 1, 1987, in Laredo, Texas. Initially the restaurant struggled to gain acceptance as it was a new concept in the local market. However, thanks to Don Pancho’s unwavering spirit and his commitment to quality, the business began to flourish.

As Taco Palenque grew, Don Pancho maintained his basic principles of customer service and quality ingredients. No matter how big or small the client’s request, they never said no. If the customer wanted corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas like in his case when he visited that taqueria in San Antonio, he provided it. If they wanted menudo tacos, they made them for them.

This “never say no” philosophy quickly became the trademark of Taco Palenque and was one of the main reasons for its success. Don Pancho firmly believed that each customer was unique and that his restaurant should be able to meet their specific needs.

And so, from one competitor’s inflexibility over a fajita taco on a corn tortilla, a restaurant empire was born. Now, Taco Palenque is a well-known and beloved restaurant chain throughout Texas, with even bigger expansion plans in the future. Don Pancho’s dedication to quality, freshness and customer service remains at the core of his success, and it’s a testament to his entrepreneurial spirit and his love for authentic Mexican food.

The story of Taco Palenque could not be complete without mentioning Don Pancho’s children. All of Don Pancho’s children have contributed significantly to the success of Taco Palenque with the role that they have played in the growth and development of the company.

Don Pancho’s commitment to family and the values he instilled in his children are clearly reflected in the way each of them has approached their roles in the company. Family participation in the company was not limited to mere supervision; each of them became actively involved in the day-to-day running of the business, bringing fresh ideas and new perspectives.

Under the leadership, Taco Palenque has experienced considerable growth, expanding its presence beyond Laredo, Texas, and establishing new restaurants in different cities. The sons have followed their father’s philosophy of “never saying no” and have maintained the commitment to quality and authenticity that characterizes Taco Palenque.

Don Pancho Ochoa signing his book to students who attended the 2nd Annual “Be the Change Leadership Conference event presented by Dr. Esmeralda Adame. She is a leadership coach, motivational speaker and podcaster. The event took place at the Mission Event Center on May 17, 2023. Photo by Roberto Hugo Gonzalez

All of them have proven to be exceptional leaders, guiding Taco Palenque through the challenges of the market, and keeping the company at the forefront of the restaurant industry. Their dedication to the business, their vision for the future and their love of authentic Mexican food have been vital to the continued growth and success of Taco Palenque.

Finally, it is important to highlight that Don Pancho has always believed in the importance of maintaining the family essence in his business. Although Taco Palenque has grown to become a great empire, it remains, at its heart, a family business that strives to stay connected to its roots and values.

Thus, as Taco Palenque continues to grow and evolve, it does so with the same philosophy and values that Don Pancho instilled from the beginning: the importance of quality, authenticity, customer service and, above all, the respect and value of family. Don Pancho’s legacy lives on at Taco Palenque, in every taco served and every smile shared.

Written by Roberto Hugo Gonzalez, the 2009 SBA Journalist of the Year Award Winner and the 2009 and 2012 Paul Harris Award recipient. TBB

Publisher’s note: Don Pancho sold El Pollo Loco brand in the Unites States. His family owns and operates El Pollo Loco in Mexico

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