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From Family Recipe to Family Business

How tech company owner Enrique Lenz turned his grandfather's chicken recipe into a popular Reston restaurant.

Cutbacks in defense spending made Reston's Enrique Lenz think about chicken.

Lenz, 47, owned his own high-tech firm (Mobilvox) for more than a dozen years when he began to think about the next dozen. The slowdown in defense contracting over the last few years meant a slowdown in contracts and revenue and a shrinking of his staff, from 24 employees to five.

"The growth we used to see, was not happening," said Lenz, who came to the area from Peru to attend graduate school at George Mason University 25 years ago. "We were seeing a lot of challenges."

It was then that he revisited his grandfather's Peruvian chicken recipe - and listened to his daughter, Amy, who always wanted to open a restaurant.

In June of 2011, the Lenzes opened in Reston. Within a few months they knew this: the Department of Homeland Security may be cutting back on contracts, but individuals were spending robustly on good food.

Within eight months, the store was making a profit, Enrique Lenz said. They are currently looking to expand with another store in Loudoun County.

Part of the success of Pollo Peru, located at 1675 Reston Parkway in the Home Depot Shopping Center, is that Lenz is a businessman, even if he had a lot to learn about the restaurant business. He said he applied the same kind of   principals — market research, a solid business plan, thoughtful hiring, dedicated employee training, and high-tech surveillance and financial systems — to Pollo Peru as he did to his tech business. 

Amy, now 25, had worked at the at South Lakes Village Center, so she brought retail and restaurant experience into the mix.

"My dad brought a different mentality," said Amy, a graduate of and George Mason University. "He knew about professional business vs. the restaurant business."

Of course, the two, along with many friends and family members, engaged in a lot of market research. By looking at other popular Peruvian chicken restaurants in Northern Virginia, they knew there was a demand.

Enrique Lenz had his grandfather's secret spice recipe, so he tinkered with chicken at home.

"The first time, we didn't even have a rotisserie," he said. "But we perfected a homemade style. We invited Peruvian friends over. The reaction was extremely positive. They said 'if you get this out there, people will be dying for it.' "

The 25-spice recipe is still a secret. It is mixed in the back in a room that only Enrique and Amy can unlock. The chicken then marinates for 24 hours before being cooked on special equipment ordered from Peru.

On a typical Friday, the busiest day of the week, Pollo Peru will go through nearly 300 chickens, says Lenz.

"Business is incredible," says Lenz, who still holds a stake in Mobilvox, though he spends "about 70 percent of my time" at the restaurant. "It has beaten all of our expectations."

His advice for anyone thinking of a career change or opening a small business?

"Follow your heart when you have a vision," he said. "When you start looking, some things are going to be adverse. But do your research and go for it."

This story is part of an occasional series called "The Way We Work." Do you have an interesting business story to tell? Contact Reston Patch editor Karen Goff at kareng@patch.com.

Scott August 10, 2012 at 01:08 PM
Love this place. The chicken is superb! Have to try the black beans and rice too - simply delicious!
Glave M. August 10, 2012 at 08:30 PM
Ditto! Thank goodness I dont have to drive down to Arlington for damn good Peruvian oven-browned gold. :) Awesome stuff.
Mike Banks August 11, 2012 at 04:15 AM
Ate there once about a month ago. The decor is rather cold and uninviting compared to my favorite chicken joint on Wilson Blvd. The chicken was OK, the fries were not very good. Worth a visit if only to catch a glimpse of the stunning Amy...

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