Step foot inside any of Portillo’s more than 50 locations today and you are likely to be struck by the sheer size of it. Everything about it is large — the menu, the staff, the crowds, the energy. Given all this, it’s hard to believe that this iconic Chicagoland restaurant first opened in a trailer, with no bathrooms or running water, on North Avenue in Villa Park, IL.
Dick Portillo is no stranger to hard work. Born to immigrant parents in Chicago, he spent part of his childhood living in public housing projects and watched his parents work hard to support their family. He enlisted in the Marines after high school, where boot camp taught him a whole different kind of hard work. After serving his country, Portillo married Sharon, his high school sweetheart, and started a family in Summit, IL. Still, the hard work continued as Portillo worked 14 full- and part-time jobs in his first 18 months of marriage. It didn’t take long for him to come to the conclusion that if he was going to work this hard, he wanted to work for himself.
So in 1963, with the $1,100 that he and Sharon had saved up for a down payment, the couple opened The Dog House, a hot dog stand in a 6 feet by 12 feet trailer, with no restrooms or running water. Without a business plan or any prior cooking experience, the first few years of The Dog House were an uphill battle. Determined to succeed, Portillo combined his military discipline, proven work ethic and even a little corporate espionage to get the job done. In order to learn about running a restaurant, Portillo would regularly visit successful area businesses to learn about operations and gain important industry intel.
Portillo’s Feeds the Nation
In 1967 The Dog House was renamed Portillo’s and moved out of the trailer and into a real building, complete with running water and restrooms. Carefully building a brand and fostering lifelong Portillo’s customers, the restaurant expanded slowly and intentionally, with the first drive thru opening in Downers Grove in 1983 and the first Chicago location opening in 1994. After establishing itself within Illinois for several decades, Portillo’s grew to include locations in Arizona, California, Florida, Indiana and Wisconsin — each restaurant carefully decorated in a specific theme, with walls adorned in framed photos and memorabilia. The company also added a very successful catering business in 1999 and a nationwide shipping service in 2000. From their tasty Italian beef to their delicious chopped salad to their famously sinful chocolate cake, Portillo’s fare has become the literal taste of Chicago for customers nationwide.
Maintaining High Standards
Today, Portillo’s is a national success, but it was those first few years in the trailer, when Portillo ran the business like a one-man show, that proved invaluable in defining the restaurant as it is today. More than 50 years later, his high standards for customer service, food quality, cleanliness and positive attitude are still the driving force behind the Portillo’s brand. Each new manager receives 12-14 weeks of training and all employees start from the ground up — just like Portillo did. He credits much of Portillo’s success to the workforce he and his team have built, boasting an impressively high employee retention rate. Whether eating inside the restaurant or grabbing a quick meal at their innovative drive thru, Portillo’s customers are greeted with a smile and leave with a delicious meal. “We are a quality house with quality food and quality employees,” explains Portillo, “and we take a lot of pride in that.”