Portillo’s has grown from a roadside shack to a city’s culinary pillar. Serving dogs and beef, how could that happen?

Dick and Sharon Portillo were tired of apartment living. It was cramped, and they were scraping by. They were saving money, but eleven hundred dollars wasn’t enough to buy a proper house for the couple, their young son, Michael, and their son on the way, Joe. The future uncertain for the twenty-three-year-old, Dick made a decision, the biggest of his life. He bet the farm on hot dogs, sold out of a roadside shack, six feet wide by twelve long, with no running water and no bathroom. If it didn’t work, and Sharon was already nervous, the family would have to start over. Dick would surely be in some trouble, making the name of the shack appropriate. He called it: The Dog House.

But fortunately for you, me, and Chicagoans from coast to coast, the risk paid off, which is an understatement of Cubs World Series proportions. “I’m living the American dream,” Portillo said of his restaurant empire that now includes more than fifty locations across seven states, four thousand six hundred employees, and what he calls a “cult-like following” around the Chicago region and beyond. Portillo sold the business in 2014, but his legacy and vision for the restaurants remain a heavy influence on the brand.

Of all the hot-dog joints in Chicago, and there are many, how did Portillo’s little trailer become the one to make history? Today, it features Italian beef, hot dogs, hamburgers off a griddle, french fries. Served in wrappers. On plastic trays. Amid gaudy, overly extravagant decoration. The gimmick is fun and popular in our culture, but it, the idea at least, is not unique. The strategy is utilized by theme restaurants and diners across the country. But Portillo’s resonates at a higher frequency. How did it get that way?

There’s the easy answer, one quoted frequently, one with which everyone can agree. Employees, patrons, current Portillo’s Hot Dogs C.E.O. Keith Kinsey, and Dick Portillo himself all say it comes down to the basics: the unique atmosphere of a Portillo’s restaurant, the friendly and efficient customer service that greets you when you come in the door or traverse the drive-through, and, of course, the food.

But it can’t just be atmosphere, food, and personality. The extent of Portillo’s success, especially in a city known for its love of hot dogs, is unmatched, and that formula is too simple to emulate. Portillo’s is the brand that makes every list of “must-eat” restaurants for visitors to the Chicago area. It’s the one that celebrities from Jim Belushi to Vince Vaughn visit when they are in town. It’s the one whose Facebook page is constantly clogged with hungry fans around the country begging corporate to open a location near them. It’s the one that broke records earlier this year when it sold one hundred fifty thousand slices of mouth-watering chocolate cake—at a discounted price of fifty-four cents per slice to celebrate its fifty-fourth anniversary—as bakers worked around the clock to keep up with lines of people that spilled out the door. Portillo’s is a historic Chicago success story. Could the answer be one compilatory reason? “It’s the experience,” Portillo smiled. That sounds like a cop-out, but is it? If you have ever been in a Portillo’s, you may know what he means. The experience grabs you the moment you enter the doors of a location, whether it’s in Deerfield or Scottsdale, Arizona. You don’t just ingest one amenity at a time. They are all working in concert, and the magnificent result lifts you off your feet. “When you walk into a Portillo’s, you are immediately struck with the sights, sounds, and smells unlike any other restaurant,” he said.

The Dog House was the first Portillo’s, opened by founder Dick Portillo in Village Park in 1963. (Photo by Lois Bernstein)

Of course it didn’t start out that way, not entirely. The Dog House was a mess at first. Portillo had no idea what he was doing. There were no hot-dog stands in Villa Park, so he opened one in 1963, but he had no experience. He bought hot dogs from the grocery store. He steamed buns until they were rocks. A line of customers? Only if you added a week’s worth. But he learned. While Sharon watched the stand, with their two young kids in tow, Portillo scouted, walking into the back of other stands and restaurants to collect intel—names of distributors, steaming tips, marketing ideas, etcetera. Add in Dick’s famous customer skills, and soon, there was a daily line of customers.

Within four years, and with help from businessman Harold Reskin, the Dog House expanded into a larger trailer and was renamed Portillo’s. At the same time, at his customers’ behest, a common theme in the Portillo’s story, Dick opened another stand in Glendale Heights. In 1969, Portillo’s was moved into a building, where customers ordered at a counter. The two spots became local favorites, and Portillo was able to push expansion on his own.

Also gaining in notoriety at the time was the Chicago-style hot dog, working directly in Portillo’s favor. According to one report, through the nineteen eighties the number of hot-dog stands in Chicago grew to four thousand. By 1988, Portillo’s had eleven stores. At one point, the lines weren’t a dream, but a business nightmare. Drive-throughs solved that in 1983, and in the late eighties, Portillo had his team take orders outside with headsets to move the lines along even quicker.

Portillo volleyed successful lobs into other restaurant genres—barbecue (Barney’s), tropical (Key Wester), Italian (Barnelli’s Pasta Bowl)—but the backbone was always Portillo’s, which pillared a fifty-million-dollar empire by the nineties. The twenty-fifth location was a two-story doozy in downtown Chicago in 1994. The schtick was on fire.

The idea to give each restaurant a time-period theme added a level of storytelling to the culinary production. You can share a conversation about that nineteen-twenties car hanging from the ceiling. You enjoy the musical influences of the nineteen seventies while devouring a dipped Italian beef sandwich. These are nostalgic moments families can share over a large order of cheese fries. “It brings stories to the table. People miss that,” Kinsey said. “There are a lot of restaurants out there that serve a lot of food, but what we serve is an experience.”

And guests take notice. “Other restaurants don’t have this kind of feel where it takes you back,” patron Leslie Madrid said. Her favorite restaurant is the Schaumburg location, decorated like a nineteen-fifties-era diner. “There’s always something here to look at,” agreed Gabrielle Ocampo from the same site.

None of that’s by chance. Every step of the Portillo’s process has been planned to keep guests entertained and happy, Kinsey said. From the moment they place their order and see it written down on the back of iconic red-and-white bags, the Portillo’s experience is a well-honed assembly line of quality, joy, and temptation. “When you place an order, a unique chain reaction occurs,” Portillo said. “The way the food is prepared in front of you, the way the expediters call out the numbers, the music, the lights. There’s so much energy inside.”

People like energy. It’s uplifting. And that’s all well and good, but it all means nothing without one key element. While people may adore their surroundings in a Portillo’s, it’s just the hook. That hook needs to be set. And Portillo’s, with its diner-style menu, does that exceptionally well.

Valari Deaver just moved to the Chicago region recently and her boss told her, “You haven’t had real food until you’ve tried Portillo’s.” She tried a burger. “It was one of the best burgers I’d ever had,” Deaver said. Two weeks later she was already back in line for more. “I’ve been dying to have it again,” she said. And this time she wasn’t alone, bringing along another friend who was new to the area, introducing him to the wonder of Portillo’s. And that’s how we got here, the tall tale of Portillo’s being passed along from braggadocios Chicagoan to Chicago rookie. And so on and so on, since 1963.

Kinsey said the quality of the food is a top priority at every Portillo’s restaurant. “Are you putting together that beef sandwich the right away? Are the fries crisp and hot? Make sure the hot dog has that snap to it when you take a bite. All of those elements that Dick established are so important to preserve in the future.”

Patrons around the region had a hard time picking one favorite menu item—as did Portillo himself—but the cheese fries, the dipped Italian beef, the chopped salad, the Chicago-style dog, and the chocolate cake shake, all topped the list. Meanwhile, Kinsey pointed out a best-kept menu secret he loves: the strawberry shortcake. The shortcake is made from scratch, and the cream is whipped in the back each day. “It is phenomenal,” Kinsey said. “It was pretty hard for me to leave that station when I was first learning it.”

Another key to Portillo’s success is the people. “All of this success would not have been possible without the hard work, loyalty, and passion of the employees,” Portillo said of the restaurant company’s team of thousands. They greet you with a friendly smile and ask “What can I get for you today?” They call out your order number with punchy, cheerful lines like “Number twenty-two, this one’s for you,” or “Order one-o-one, your dinner is done.” They stand outside in all kinds of brutal Chicago weather, amid long, double lines of cars slowly rolling down the drive-through, to make sure the process moves quickly and smoothly.

Amy Nava remembers standing outside the Arlington Heights location in negative-ten-degree temperatures one winter. Snow started falling on her bright orange “Portillo’s” hat, but the lines were long so she kept taking orders. “People can’t get enough,” said Nava. She can’t either. Even after working for the company for four years, Nava said she still eats the food almost every day. Her favorite: the beef and cheddar croissant. “Everyone loves Portillo’s because of the atmosphere of the restaurants and the variety of food,” she said. “A lot of people went to the original restaurant with Dick Portillo and they keep coming back.”

“One of the things that’s tragic in my mind is that not enough people get a chance to experience Portillo’s restaurant, so we’re solving that.”
—Keith Kinsey, Portillo’s C.E.O.

While the original Dog House owner sold the company in 2014, his legacy and influence on the brand aren’t going anywhere. Kinsey said it’s been an honor to follow in Dick Portillo’s large footsteps, and it’s a responsibility he takes seriously. “He developed this great and iconic brand so we want to continue that into the future,” he said. “We don’t have Dick at the helm, but we have his heart and soul within the organization.”

Visitors to Portillo’s haven’t seen any major changes since the sale, and likely won’t, Kinsey said. “The biggest change you’ll see is the number of restaurants and where we go. One of the things that’s tragic in my mind is that not enough people get a chance to experience a Portillo’s restaurant, so we’re solving that.”

Kinsey said the company plans to open seven new restaurants in 2017 and hopes to grow ten percent to twelve percent in each year to follow. New restaurants will open this year in Harwood Heights, Illinois; Normal, Illinois; Greenfield, Wisconsin; Fishers, Indiana; and Woodbury and Maple Grove in Minnesota.

Kinsey is particularly excited about the seventh new location opening in 2017: Champaign, Illinois. As a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a school attended by thousands of Chicago-area transplants each year, Kinsey said bringing the restaurant to his old college town was a special moment. “I was so impressed with the excitement people had at the ground-breaking. It was so cool to go back down there and see the enthusiasm,” he said. “Having that kind of support from the school was phenomenal.”

Although a glance at the company’s social media page shows pleas from fans from New York to Texas to Oregon, Kinsey said the company looks at hard data, such as where they are shipping the most food orders and what demographic trends say about where people are moving to from Chicago, when deciding where to open next. He encouraged people to be patient. “In the long-term, what the food stands for, the environment and the atmosphere, Portillo’s definitely has the potential to become a national brand,” Kinsey said.

Each ground-breaking of a new restaurant in a new place becomes a party, he said. One loyal fan comes to every opening, from Florida to Arizona to Wisconsin, and tries to be first in line for the food. When Portillo’s opened in Tampa, Florida, one woman drove six hours from Key Largo to bring food home to her family. It was so cold at the ground-breaking in Woodbury, Minnesota, that the company had to bring in dirt because the actual ground was too frozen to dig into. People still lined up for the event.

“It’s so cool to watch the expressions on people’s faces when we open up these restaurants and they get to see the atmosphere and feel the friendliness of our team,” Kinsey said. “Then they get the food. It’s really amazing how many people come from places other than Chicago, but then they come to a Portillo’s and feel like they are back in sweet home Chicago.”

And at every new restaurant opening, there’s Dick Portillo, the spiritual adviser of the brand, the man who built a waterless, heatless shack to sell hog dogs, telling his new employees and fans how it all started—way back in 1963 with a beat-up trailer, a vat of hot dogs, and a dream.

About the author

A staff writer for the Daily Herald, Melissa has seen her work published by Bloomberg News, the Chicago Tribune, and 22nd Century Media since earning a journalism degree at the University of Illinois.

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