By David King
Manuel Perales’s life story may be one of the best ‘rags to riches’ story you will find in a Concord resident. Perales immigrated to the Los Angeles area illegally at the age of 15. He had only an elementary education and didn’t speak English. Today he owns 19 El Pollo Locos with a 20th on the way. His formula for his success: work hard, have mentors, and be very generous to those in need. His story is the epitome of the American dream.
Among his generosity, he recently donated 150 burritos to feed firemen in Sonoma County fighting the Kincade fire; support he has done many times for firemen of past fires. His El Pollo Loco stores are also participating in a program with both corporate and other franchisees to package the store’s unsold food each day and donate to local non-profits within their respective communities.
Perales came to the US to be with his 16-year-old brother who had also immigrated a few months earlier. Together they stayed with some relatives, briefly, in a garage conversion, then in hotels for a short time, spent nights on the streets, and slept in friends’ cars. The two were on their own. They finally moved into a single apartment with nine other tenants and split the rent at $55 per month each.
Perales struggled finding a job. “What I had was a great attitude. I was eager to learn,” he stated. “Today that’s what I look for in people. I look for applicants with a positive attitude because I can train them from there.”
While his brother was working as a dishwasher, he would Perales would often show up and just help him do the dishes. He wasn’t paid, but the cooks at the restaurant would feed him. It was the only way he could eat.
When Perales finally found paid work, it quickly turned into three jobs: Popeyes preparing biscuits, a busboy, and a dishwasher, all at different restaurants.
“After one year, my brother and I saved $10,000 and we bought our first house in Mexico. I was 17,” he says proudly.
Perales didn’t spend money on clothes, and since he worked in restaurants, he didn’t spend much on groceries because he was getting fed every day for free. He also didn’t spend on entertainment as he had no free time.
In 1989, he was hired at El Pollo Loco as an assistant manager and within a year he became General Manager. At this point he was only 19. He managed a store opening in Sherman Oaks which was extremely successful. That got the corporate’s attention. He quickly rose to District Manager and then became a franchisee consultant to 27 stores.
Through his career, he moved his family about every four years. Perales had worked for the corporation for 11 years while developing his interest in becoming an owner.
He finally became an owner on May 5, 2000 (Ironically, Cinco de Mayo). He had bought into two franchises, Salinas and San Jose.
With his family living in Sacramento, he rented a San Jose apartment for himself. He realized he was missing too much family time so they moved to Concord where they have remained for 15 years.
“From day one, my goal was to have 15 restaurants, and my 15th store was the Monument Blvd. location that opened March 1, 2019.”
“Most of my financial needs were met a long time ago, probably after the first five restaurants,” he says. “As I buy more restaurants, the financial is not as important. Once you get your basic needs : food, shelter, and education, anything else that you make is irrelevant. What I learned in this journey is my purpose in life is helping others.”
Perales says he obtained his legal status and GED a long time ago, but attributes his real education to the “University of El Pollo Loco.”
“I would do it all over because it was the best learning experience. I learned the importance of having a job, making money, and not counting on anybody. I learned to do things on my own at a very early age. By the time I was 20, I had a very clear vision of what I wanted to do.”
“Now I look for ways to help others. When I open a restaurant, I don’t see it as adding income into my pocket, I see it as giving opportunity to people. To open a new store, I hire 50 people which generates taxes, plus there’s architects, plumbers, construction workers, etc.”
He also enjoys mentoring and helping people to become owners of their own business both here and in Mexico.
“I am beyond blessed. I came here at the age of 15 illegally with no education and not able to speak English, and I have done okay. If I can make it with all those obstacles, then anybody can be extremely successful if they put their mind to it.”
Updated from November 2019