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With Investors Hungry for Fast-Casual Chicken, El Pollo Loco Makes Strong Public Debut


Investors are hungry for some fast-casual chicken.

Mexican-style chicken franchise El Pollo Loco made a strong public debut this morning, with shares surging nearly 30 percent in early trading.

The Costa Mesa, Califorinia-based chain priced its initial public offering last night at $15 a share, the top of its expected range. The company raised $107 million from the sale of 7.1 million shares.

As of 11:15 a.m. ET today, shares were trading at $19, up 27 percent.

El Pollo Loco has over 400 restaurants, primarily in California. All 168 company operated and 233 franchised restaurants are in five Western states.

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The chain's hot start is just the most recent in a string of high-profile public debuts for fast-casual restaurants, including Mediterranean chain Zoe's Kitchen, which went public in April, and take-and-bake pizza chain Papa Murphy's, which went public in May.

El Pollo Loco hopes to make it big in the public market by appealing to both the fast-food and fast casual market. The Mexican chain sees its competitors as both fast casuals like Chipotle, Panera and Qdoba, and fast-food chains such as KFC, Chick-fil-A and Taco Bell.

The company has had 11 straight quarters of same-store sales growth, according to its IPO filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The chain also reported that its net loss narrowed to $16.9 million in 2013 from $32.5 million in 2011.

El Pollo Loco has actually filed for an IPO before, years prior to today's public debut. The company, owned by Trimaran Capital Partners, filed for a $135 million IPO in 2006, following Chipotle's IPO. However, the chicken chain withdrew its plans, citing difficult market conditions.

El Pollo Loco was founded in 1975 as a roadside chicken stand in Mexico and acquired by Denny's Inc. in 1983. In the 1980s and 90s, the chain was publicly traded under Denny's parent company. In November 1999, equity investment firm American Securities Capital Partners, L.P. acquired El Pollo Loco for $128 million and sold the chain in 2005 to Trimaran Capital for $400 million.

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