Steve Lash: Loco Like A Fox

“A chicken is actually corn with feathers,” Steve Lash says.

He should know. Lash is director of supply chain management for El Pollo Loco, a restaurant chain that built its success on citrus-marinated, flame-grilled, Mexican-style chicken.

With more than 360 stores in seven states, and a 12-state expansion underway, El Pollo Loco (Spanish for The Crazy Chicken) runs through a whole lot of drumsticks, breasts, and wings.

That’s why Lash’s first stop on the web each day is the Chicago Board of Trade’s site, to check the price of what, from his point of view, is basically chicken feed.

“As goes the price of corn, so goes the cost of chicken,” says Lash, who’s responsible for buying and moving about 700 items for the company’s retail locations. “That’s the key to business: anticipating costs, and making logistics decisions about the what, when, and how many, and ways to pay for it all.”

Lash left Burger King to join El Pollo Loco, where he was charged with creating a new supply chain management group for the chicken chain, after a spin-off by its former corporate owner left it without that piece of infrastructure. He reports to the chief financial officer.

Along with purchasing and distribution, Lash also used to run quality assurance, but El Pollo Loco recently established that as a separate department, staffed by people Lash hired and trained.

One big logistics issue for El Pollo Loco is the fact that many of the products it uses have a shelf life of only seven to 10 days.

“Managing products that are sourced in California, and have to be served on the East Coast before they expire, is more challenging than handling products with a more extended shelf life,” Lash says.

One key to meeting that challenge is redundancy – in suppliers, products, and anything else that might require an alternative if demand suddenly out strips supply, or events diverge from plan.

“If you don’t have a direct backup, at least have a contingency plan in mind,” Lash advises.

El Pollo Loco’s current expansion also poses a logistics challenge – especially when the company first enters a new market, before it starts to realize economies of scale.

“If a store requires 700 items, I have to make sure all 700 items are there,” Lash says. That’s Lash’s job whether El Pollo Loco operates one or 100 stores in an area. But the more stores, the simpler his task.

“It’s a lot easier to buy a truckload of chicken than it is to buy two cases,” he explains.

Lash doesn’t shy away from the rigors of corporate expansion. “At Burger King, we opened new territories in the United States and expanded internationally as well,” he says.

That posed some interesting difficulties. “It was a challenge, for example, to expand into areas where products have to be Halal-certified (manufactured according to Islam’s dietary restrictions),” he says.

And in some countries, health departments require pages of documentation on a single product. When a restaurant uses hundreds of products, those pages pile up fast.

“But in the United States, you just have to answer who, what, when, where, and how many,” Lash says.

The Big Questions

What do you do when you’re not at work?

I’m an avid skier and sailor. On Saturdays in the fall, my wife of 35 years and I cheer for the University of Tennessee football team and for any team playing against the University of Alabama.

Ideal dinner companion?

If I had the opportunity to have dinner with Jesus, he’d probably say prophetic things that I wouldn’t understand. Then I’d torture myself the rest of my life trying to figure out what he said and how to live that every day. So instead, I think I’ll just have dinner with my wife. Her, I understand.

Business motto?

Make it happen.

What makes for a great day on the job?

No unhappy customers, internally or externally.

What’s in your briefcase?

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