INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Albert Okura the Chicken Man — A Bit ‘Hen’ (in a Good Way)

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BY GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

I started to think about all the business-related books I’ve read over the years and realized it’s been quite a few. Some, like “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson, is actually a biography, but you can’t write about the personal evolution of the late co-founder of the world’s biggest corporation by market cap without learning of Steve Jobs’ way of running and growing Apple (and Pixar) and without getting even slightly educated about business.

I also read “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail” by Clayton M. Christensen, which explores how companies that release exciting products that disrupt the existing market can become super-successful — then find the shoe on the other foot when a new challenger with a superior product comes along or when a technological shift occurs that knocks them off the pedestal. (That might apply to the aforementioned Apple.)

“Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt,” Michael Lewis’ book about questionable Wall Street trading practices in the area of high-frequency trading, was definitely under the heading of business, but it wasn’t a treatise on how to run a company or something like that, but more of an exposé. (See related articles at http://tinyurl.com/ppee766 and http://tinyurl.com/n2s6s2p)

Even President Flimflam has purportedly written several business  books, which for some reason I’ve just not gotten around to reading — but I hear they’re great, the best business books ever written, really, really good.

When I searched for “best business books,” one that came up was Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” considered a classic among business books. And, coincidentally, it’s a book cited as one of two books (the other being “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill) that changed the life of a man who himself has written a business-related book. His name is Albert Okura, and his book is titled “Albert the Chicken Man.” (Incidentally, “The Chicken Man” has a trademark symbol after it, so I guess he owns that phrase.)

Okura is the founder of a chain of more than 25 rotisserie chicken restaurants called Juan Pollo. Its slogan (also trademarked) is “The Best Tasting Chicken!”

For readers whose routines don’t take them to the Inland Empire and towns like Riverside, Fontana, Corona, Colton, Ontario and Upland, the Juan Pollo chicken restaurant chain may be an unknown. (There are at least a couple Juan Pollos in Orange County; the ones in Los Angeles County are in towns on the outskirts, like Covina, Pomona, La Mirada and La Puente.)

Juan Pollo has a strong customer base, largely Hispanic, and many of the restaurant operators are themselves Hispanic. If you didn’t know the founder was Japanese American, you might not ever guess that fact.

Interestingly, I have recently started seeing Juan Pollo TV commercials early in the morning during the local Los Angeles news shows. They show golden brown chickens turning on a spit, with flamenco guitar in the soundtrack. Those TV spots may augur the beginning of Juan Pollo’s campaign to make inroads in the lucrative Los Angeles market by making the name familiar to new customers — and possibly serve the dual purpose of being a friendly warning to that other Mexican-style chicken chain, El Pollo Loco, that the competition is coming!

In fact, the topic of El Pollo Loco is addressed head-on in chapter 12 of “The Chicken Man.” Okura definitely calls ’em like he sees ’em and pulls no punches as he recounts what he sees as that chain’s missteps, but he also is quite open about how blown away he was in his first encounter with the chicken at El Pollo Loco when he was a supervisor at a Del Taco. He’s less keen about it now, though, claiming that the recipe has since changed since El Pollo Loco’s early days; plus, he runs Juan Pollo, which cooks chicken rotisserie style, not grilled on an open flame.

Reading his book, it’s obvious how big a part the fast-food industry was in shaping his life and his life’s trajectory. If ever there were born a man whose destiny was to be a part of the fast-food biz (he also worked for Burger King), then that man is Albert Okura. He writes: “By the age of 20, I quit school and jumped into the fast-food business. In 1984, I opened my own fast food restaurant selling rotisserie chicken.

“I was in the right place at the right time and I took advantage. My destiny in life is to sell more chicken than anyone in the world.”

If one can gauge another’s personality by his writing, then I’d guess that in Okura we have someone who is focused, confident, sincere, unironic, straightforward, smart, hardworking, tireless and clever — but also not afraid to be a bit eccentric and even sentimental.

This is a man who, after all, bought the town of Amboy, Calif., (which is along the path of the old Route 66) when he heard it was up for sale a few years ago because he had a mentor who lamented his lost opportunity to buy the town when he had the chance. (Okura is making it into a tourist destination, and he gets lots of foreign visitors interested in the historic Route 66.)

Okura also in 1998 bought the site of the original McDonald’s at 1398 North E Street in San Bernardino, when that property was for sale as a foreclosure, and built on it the corporate headquarters for Juan Pollo —and an unofficial McDonald’s museum, out of respect for the hamburger giant he so loved as a boy.

Writes Okura: “It has to be destiny that I grew up idolizing McDonald’s, watched them become the largest restaurant chain in the world, and ended up owning the site where it all started.” All this without any cooperation of the McDonald’s Corporation. Incidentally, admission to the museum is free.

Both of those purchases has garnered lots of free news coverage for Okura, which of course leads to coverage for Juan Pollo. Not so loco sounding now, right?

Tsuyoshi Okura

As for Okura’s backstory, he was born in the Wilmington area of Los Angeles. He grew up in the 1950s and he is the eldest of four children born to Tsuyoshi and Chiyoko Okura. Okura even gives a shout-out to The Rafu Shimpo, which he said had called his baseball player dad the “greatest all-around Japanese American athlete of his generation.”

Okura’s mom, meantime, made him get a paper route when he was old enough, delivering The San Pedro News-Pilot; he also collected empty Coke bottles, which he would redeem for cash, and any spare money he didn’t spend on comic books went to sampling the food from all the local fast-food restaurants: McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Der Wienerschnitzel, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Jack in the Box, Foster’s Freeze, and In-and-Out. “What a great time for someone like me,” he writes.

At the end of each chapter, “The Chicken Man” also delivers McNuggets of hard-won wisdom Okura has amassed over the years. For instance, at the end of the chapter about buying the original McDonald’s site, he writes: “Marketing opportunities are always available but you need to recognize them and take action.” Some of it might be obvious, but you can’t accuse Okura of not learning these lessons the hard way or in a way he didn’t experience first-hand.

In the “About This Book” section at its beginning, he writes: “This book will appeal to two different types of readers: 1. Fans of Juan Pollo chicken who are interested in the history of their favorite chicken restaurant and potential investment opportunities. 2. Individuals who are intrigued by success stories of others and how it may apply to their life experiences.”

Having only eaten at a Juan Pollo many years ago, I’m not in the first category; I am, however, in the second category, and I found “Albert the Chicken Man” to be a fascinating, fun read. It recounts his successes and the failures alike. If you want to buy a copy, you can get the e-book version from iTunes; if you want paper, go to AlbertTheChickenMan.com to order it or via Amazon.com, just in case you have an unused Amazon gift card lying around.

Chickens, of course, aren’t known to fly. But thanks to Albert “The Chicken Man” Okura, Juan Pollo may be flying to higher heights very soon.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at gjohnston@rafu.com. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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