Albert Okura 1951-2023

Albert Okura, the founder of the Juan Pollo restaurant chain who stands with Glen Bell, Neal Baker, Ed Hackbarth, David Jameson and Richard and Maurice McDonald as a member of San Bernardino County’s pantheon of worldwide fast-food originator/innovators, has died.
Okura, 71 of Chino, died of a yet-undisclosed illness this week.
Okura, a sansei, that is, a third-generation Japanese American, was born in Wilmington in 1951 to Tsuyoshi and Chiyoko Okura. His first job, other than having a paper route as a kid, was making Whoppers at the Harbor City Burger King when he was 18 in 1970, shortly after he graduated from high school. Three years later, he was entrusted with an assistant manager’s position at another Burger King. At the age of 24, he jumped to Del Taco and a soon landed a job as a manager of one of its operations.
In 1981, he was the manager of the Del Taco in Carson. An El Pollo Loco, featuring char-broiled chicken, opened nearby. This inspired him to consider striking out on his own with a restaurant featuring grilled chicken. The brother of his uncle by marriage, George Komatsu, was a successful grocer who by that point had parlayed his success in the grocery business into owning a shopping center in Ontario. Komatsu made a restaurant location in that shopping mall available to his “nephew.”
The first Juan Pollo debuted in January 1984. The restaurant did not immediately enjoy brisk sales, Okura later recounted. His gross receipts on the day Juan Pollo opened were $165. It took time, through word of mouth, for Okura to build up an initial customer base for the single location.
As sales increased, difficulty ensued, however, in that the restaurant pad did not offer adequate space for the number of grills Okura would need to keep up with the volume of chicken his customers were calling upon him to produce. It was at that point that another person to whom he was related by marriage played a key part in his success. Armando Parro was married to Okura’s wife’s sister. Parro, who was born in Mexico and had lived long enough in the area of Chihuahua where rotisserie-cooked chicken was popular, suggested that the use of vertical rotisseries would allow the restaurant to thrive. Parro was instrumental in assisting Okura with both technique and recipes, ones which included marinating the chicken in a combination of citrus juices and spices for twelve hours and then slow cooking the birds, which were kept whole and uncut, at a precise heat range for two hours and 55 minutes.
The final product was a chicken product many have come to consider the tastiest form of poultry there is.
As sales increased, Okura expanded into a second location at Fifth Street and Mount Vernon Avenue in San Bernardino in 1986, more than two years after opening the first. It was after that when the chain found its niche.
There are now 25 Juan Pollo restaurants in Southern California, in Coachella, Cathedral City, Los Angeles, Anaheim, La Mirada, Santa Ana, La Puente, Covina, Upland, Chino, Corona, Beaumont, Perris, Jurupa Valley, Moreno Valley, Riverside, Fontana, Bloomington, Colton and two each in San Bernardino, Pomona and Ontario.
By the late 1990s, Okura was an established player in the fast-food industry.
Okura had an abiding interest in the fast-food industry and its history.
In 1998, the property upon which the original McDonald’s drive-in restaurant at 14th and E streets in San Bernardino, which was opened a half-century earlier by Dick and Maurice McDonald, was being foreclosed upon. Okura swooped in and picked it up for $135,000. The restaurant itself had been demolished nearly three decades previously, but Okura felt there was a need to memorialize the property and what it meant in terms of American culture. He relocated Juan Polo’s corporate headquarters to the location and opened an unofficial McDonald’s museum and tribute to the McDonald brothers next to it, at first ignoring and then facing down threats from the McDonald’s Corporation that he did not have rights to the McDonald’s name and logo.
In addition to the McDonald’s museum, he was committed to keeping future generations aware of the grandeur that had once been San Bernardino. He celebrated the city as a major location on Route 66 and was a prime mover behind the Military History Museum in San Bernardino as well as a sponsor of both the annual Veterans Day and Christmas parades.
In 2005, Okura, a member of E Clampus Vitus, purchased outright the entire township of Amboy, California, located on historic Route 66, for $425,000. His intent was to reestablish the town as a tourist stop, replete with a museum. He refurbished, at a cost of more than $100,000, the historic gas station in Amboy in 2008, reopening it, along with its iconic diner, and café.
Okura is survived by his wife, Gisella, sons Kyle and Aaron and daughter Chloe.
Mark Gutglueck

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