By Caryl Clem:
Who purchases a 6 by 12 foot dog house shaped trailer to sell hot dogs even though he has never cooked one? A young frustrated ex-Marine who has left 14 jobs in 18 months was willing to take that gamble. As the Chicago Tribune reported, Dick Portillo was newly married and his mother in law and Brown’s Chicken manager brother encouraged him to try the food industry. In 1963, his trailer named The Dog House was his first attempt to become a hot dog king which opened in Villa Park.
In his autobiography, Out of the Dog House, Dick reports his first customers were served overcooked dogs on dry or burned buns. Dick’s military background had taught him how to investigate any situation. He went to a popular hot dog restaurant, studied how hot dogs were prepared, buns steamed and even snuck into the storeroom area to take a sample of their relish. He perfected his basic menu of Hot Dogs, Italian beef, Italian sausage and Polish sausage sandwiches resulting in a steady stream of customers. Dick believed his business would continue to grow if he provided product quality, friendly customer service, a welcoming positive attitude and evident, consistent cleanliness. In 1967, the business was renamed Portillo’s adding more locations around Chicago.
Dick Portillo used his boundless energy to visit his restaurants on a regular basis. After watching how customers waited in line he improved food service time. Menu options expand to include fish, salads, pasta, cheese fries, his world famous chocolate cake (made from his daughter-in-law Gina’s recipe) and the chocolate cake shake. Years ago, he was in Downers Grove, Illinois and watched from a parking lot a young mother struggling to control her children’s actions. He could clearly see how drive through windows would increase serving food to families with young children.
Dick Portillo credits his success to the training and maintaining of loyal employees. The average Portillo location employs between 150-200 people. Long haul workers who have served for 20 years have been gifted Caribbean cruises. When Portillo decided to open in California, he bused over 2,000 people to his Grand Opening including Marines from the base where he was once stationed, Camp Pendleton. Currently, Portillo’s has over 60 locations in 7 states. Portillo’s was sold to Berkshire Partner’s in 2013.
The real key to Portillo’s success is customer’s taste buds craving more proven by the fact that one location in Chicago grosses over 17 million in sales a year. When mentioning writing about Portillo’s, I heard about a pre-teen young lady named Olivia who lives near Downers Grove. She is a bright light in a classroom and talented student fighting cancer. She has told a teacher that her favorite restaurant is Portillo’s; especially enjoying their cheese fries. She is undergoing daily radiation treatment for several weeks; driving to Luries Childrens Hospital from the southwest suburbs everyday and returning home early evening. The family would love gift cards to restaurants which would be gratefully appreciated to ease the burden surrounding Olivia’s lifesaving care at this time. You may contact Olivia’s Mom on her Facebook site https://www.facebook.com/annamaria.parker.