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La Pizza Loca Drops Chicago Pizza Acquisition Drive

Takeovers: After an eight-month pursuit, the new target is El Pollo Loco, which was put up for sale in June.

July 16, 1999|GREG HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

La Pizza Loca Inc., one of Orange County's largest Latino-owned companies, on Thursday ended its contentious eight-month effort to acquire control of Chicago Pizza & Brewery Inc. in Mission Viejo.

La Pizza Loca owner Alex Meruelo said he will now focus on putting together a bid to purchase the Irvine-based El Pollo Loco chain. El Pollo Loco, which specializes in Mexican charbroiled chicken, was put up for sale last month by its parent company, Advantica Restaurant Group.

"There are other investments and opportunities that make more sense for me to pursue," Meruelo said. "I think I could have more . . . impact with El Pollo Loco than I could have had with Chicago Pizza."

La Pizza Loca will sell its stake in Chicago Pizza to Nevada-based investor ASSI Inc., which had purchased 1.25 million shares of Chicago Pizza stock in March. La Pizza Loca and Meruelo, who is also president of the firm, tried unsuccessfully to halt that sale in court.

Meruelo and his investors agreed to sell their 866,000 shares in Chicago Pizza to ASSI for $2.25 a share, increasing the Nevada company's stake in Chicago Pizza to about 28%. Meruelo said he purchased the shares for an average of $1.66 each and estimates that he will make about $500,000 on the deal.

"I'm very saddened by the experience," Meruelo said. I would have wanted it to turn out differently. Unfortunately, we just didn't see eye to eye."

Chicago Pizza's stock closed Thursday at $1.81, down 6 cents in Nasdaq trading.

Meruelo first made a bid to buy Chicago Pizza in December. He and his investors had eventually purchased a 14.78% stake.

For their part, Chicago Pizza officials said they are relieved.

"It certainly allows us to focus on the operations of the company and not be diverted with outside issues," said Co-Chief Executive Officer Paul Motenko. "We're glad that the major shareholders in the company and management are working together as a team to make the company grow."

Motenko had previously said that teaming with ASSI creates an alliance between the companies that would help fuel Chicago Pizza's expansion, partly because ASSI has agreed to provide funding for future projects.

Chicago Pizza has 27 outlets in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Hawaii.

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