An Import That Offers Memories of Home

Kathy Barahona and her children, Alicia and David, recently expanded their restaurant empire to Columbia Heights. They are tapping into a market of Central American immigrants who ate at Campero in their homeland. Several Maryland and Virginia branches each gross more than $2 million a year.
Kathy Barahona and her children, Alicia and David, recently expanded their restaurant empire to Columbia Heights. They are tapping into a market of Central American immigrants who ate at Campero in their homeland. Several Maryland and Virginia branches each gross more than $2 million a year. (Photos B Y James A. Parcell -- For The Washington Post)
By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 22, 2007

Pollo Campero, say the restaurant's biggest fans, is a piece of home -- un pedacito of the Central America left behind when the Washington area's Guatemalans and Salvadorans and Hondurans and Nicaraguans moved here.

Since 1971, fried chicken from this Guatemalan restaurant chain has been part of the Central American landscape, and it's now dotting its way across ours: In the past four years, Northern Virginia's Barahona family has opened Pollo Camperos in Baileys Crossroads, Herndon, Wheaton, Langley Park and Gaithersburg. In November, the family brought the first Campero to the District, in the heart of Columbia Heights.

And "almost every weekend" since, 22-year-old Delmy Majano said with a plate of chicken on the table before her, she and her family have come for that taste that reminds them of El Salvador. Majano was born in the United States, but she and her parents returned to El Salvador when she was 2, and for her, the restaurant is a piece of her childhood. She remembers how her father would take them to dinner there, and the memories are etched with a formality that parallels how, in Latin America, the restaurants have hostesses and waiters who take and serve the orders. "And it's expensive for people, and it was a big deal," Majano said.

Here in the District, the restaurant uses the fast-food, order-at-the-counter model shared by each of the region's Camperos. The restaurant franchise owners, Kathy Barahona, her husband, José, and their two grown children, David and Alicia, had hoped the District restaurant would follow the success created by their other restaurants, especially in 2003 when the Baileys Crossroads store debuted to eight-hour lines and about $1 million in revenue during the first six weeks.

But finding traction in the District has been "a little bit slower than we thought," says David Barahona, 24. Surrounded by construction -- the restaurant is on the ground floor of a new condo building, next to the Tivoli Theater and the new Giant, and across the street from another still-being-built condo building and a development that will bring a Target and Best Buy to the neighborhood -- the restaurant has been popular with the construction workers but not as mobbed as the Barahonas' other franchises. In addition to the construction, "parking has been a problem," Barahona said.

Still, he added, the "crossover market has been fantastic." They're seeing, he said, "more Caucasians, more African Americans and more adventurous 20-somethings coming over to get something different. They're tired of the typical McDonald's."

And plenty of Latinos are crowding inside, too.

"We're here almost every day," said construction worker Darwin Calix, 31, a Honduran who has lived here since 1994. "It's what we love, and it hasn't been here."

"The food is great," he added, "and the customer service is marvelous -- they treat you with respect and kindness."

Marlon Osorio, 27, a Guatemalan who lives in Riverdale and works construction in the District, said: "It's so much more friendly than, like, at a McDonald's. The manager here says hello to everyone. At McDonald's, they're so serious."

Agreeing that Campero "is better than McDonald's," Hector Valdez, a construction worker at a nearby table, added: "But it's not the same as back home." Valdez, 28 and from Guatemala, has lived here for six years. His memories of Pollo Campero are of a nice restaurant, where people dress up and the whole meal is an event sheathed in elegance, he said.

But here, he said, gesturing to his spattered work clothes and scowling, like it's a disgrace to allow people dressed as he is into Pollo Campero, the restaurant has become "just fast food, and it's not the same."

Yet customers such as Valdez don't seem to be stopping the juggernaut that is Pollo Campero.

David Barahona says each of the family's Washington area franchises is grossing $2.5 to $3.5 million per year. The family will soon be opening restaurants in Manassas and Massaponax, and, by early next year, one in Laurel, he says. And the family isn't stopping there: David Barahona is "looking for three or four other spots" and even more places in which to expand.


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