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I tell my sons to be good citizens
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John Estrella talks to reporters Friday noon after being given a check for $2,200 from El Pollo Loco manger Rafael Armenta, Jr., left, to replace the money he lost last month in the East Yosemite Avenue fast food restaurants parking lot. - photo by GLENN KAHL

Character is on the menu of Manteca’s El Pollo Loco fast food restaurant.

John Estrella lost his wallet with money he was using to put down on a mobile home on Friday, May 3, in the El Pollo Loco parking lot.  He couldn’t have lost it in a better place than at restaurant on East Yosemite Avenue just east of the Highway 99 freeway.

The franchise owners, along with help from the corporate office, gave the total stranger a check for $2,200 over lunch Friday, plus a new leather wallet, to replace what he had lost getting out of his car that night in their parking lot.  It was an effort by a business family that believes in giving back and making a difference wherever possible, because of the “wonderful country” they have adopted as their home.

Rafael Armenta Sr. and his three sons share the administrative duties at the eight franchise restaurants he owns in Stockton, Modesto and other parts of the two adjoining counties.  Estrella was a Mexican immigrant who came to California more than 30 years ago, working his way up in the company.

Rafael Jr.,  who operates the Manteca location,  said the loss “was unfortunate” that it happened at all, but the restaurant  took care of it when no one showed up to return the money after it had appeared in the paper. 

The manager had contacted their corporate headquarters in Southern California to see if they could work together on the issue – and they did.  Armenta noted that Estrella had come into the restaurant the next day after his loss to explain the scenario of having the money taken from where he had unknowingly dropped it on the ground.

 “We want to be a Good Samaritan to make up for the Bad Samaritan (who took the money),” he said in the community he has called home for the past six years.  “Our guests come first at El Pollo Loco and I didn’t like it that it is my home town where my children go to elementary school.”

The senior Armento worked as a cook at the first El Pollo Loco located in Los Angeles in 1982 at the corner of Sixth and Alvarado streets in downtown LA.  That’s where he started a tradition regarding marriage in his family when he asked cashier Bertha Alicia to be his bride shortly after he was offered the job of manager of that store.

Armento Jr., who now manages the Manteca franchise, followed suit when working in a Modesto El Pollo Loco restaurant.  He was also a cook who asked a cashier to be his wife.  They now have five boys in their family.  Armento’s youngest son is now working at the Parkway Plaza El Pollo Loco as a cook and learning the system.   His girl friend is coincidentally a cashier at the same store.

The second oldest son, Jose, is not married and he is majoring in business administration at Modesto Junior College planning to transfer to Stanislaus State University and eventually will oversee the family franchise operations.

“It’s a beautiful country,” Armento, Sr.  said of the United States.   “I tell my sons to be good citizens, to have dreams and to pursue those dreams.”

He said he now lives in Modesto where the community is still small enough to know everyone and call them by name.  Armento said they are planning to open two more stores in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties over the next two to three years.

The theft of the money had been caught on a video surveillance camera.  The suspect was seen picking up what appeared to be a wallet and throwing it into his car before going into the restaurant with two friends standing in line behind Estrella when he was talking with the clerk at the counter about losing the cash.