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Chicago Champ — 50 years later, Dick Portillo stays true to his dream, giving people what they want

 
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The classic Portillo's hot dog is assembled. | SUN-TIMES PHOTO

The classic Portillo's hot dog is assembled. | SUN-TIMES PHOTO

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Updated: April 14, 2014 4:48PM



Dick Portillo and his wife Sharon had two young children in the early 1960s, and, like a lot of young couples, struggled to get ahead. She waited tables, and in the first 18 months of their marriage he worked 14 different jobs: unloading box cars, digging ditches, laboring in a junkyard.

He watched the kids during the day, handed them to Sharon when she came home, and headed out to one of his own backbreaking jobs. Not that he minded. He was an ex-Marine, and still in good shape. But he had bigger ideas. So in 1963, at the age of 23, he took the $1,100 he and Sharon had saved for a house and used it to build a hot dog stand — actually a little hut on a 6-by-12-foot trailer, with no bathroom or running water.

“I thought, ‘If I’m going to put in all of these hours, why not work for myself?’” says Dick Portillo, who at 74 recently celebrated his company’s 50th anniversary. Today he employs more than 4,000 people in four states — Illinois, Indiana, Arizona and California — and that $1,100 investment turned out to be the best chance he ever took.

Portillo grew up in public housing on Chicago’s Mohawk Street and when he ended up in Villa Park with his own family, he realized it was crawling with fellow Chicago transplants. But where were all the hot dog stands? He saw it as an opportunity. With the help of his father-in-law, he built the trailer and offered hot dogs, fries, tamales and soda pop. In 1970 the menu expanded to include Italian sausage and Italian beef — two more Chicago classics — and in the early 1990s, long before fast-food chains offered healthy alternatives, Portillo’s rolled out salads.

“I always watch the public and figure out what they want,” says Portillo during lunch at his Clark and Ontario restaurant, a store that rings up $13.5 million in sales per year. It is impossible for him to walk through the restaurant today without being stopped for photo opps, but in years past, when customers didn’t recognize him, he stood in line to see what they were seeing and hear what they were saying. This is the way he has always run his company.

“I have never used a research company,” he says. “All my moves have been from the gut.”

The River North restaurant has neon lights on the ceiling and slowly turning fans just below them. This creates energy, he says, even if people aren’t fully aware of it. Upbeat music from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s also elevates the mood. Exposed brick walls, a fire escape, hanging laundry, vintage signs, an old car, black-and-white family photos, sports memorabilia and those signature red-and-white checkered tablecloths all evoke a feeling, he says. It’s old-time Chicago.

As a workplace, Portillo’s has very little turnover. Some employees have racked up three or four decades working for the privately owned company. Expansion has been measured, both in store openings and menu variety. With 40-some menu items, including hamburgers, Maxwell Street Style Polish sausages, chicken and fish sandwiches, when a new item gets added to the menu, an old one gets chopped. The stand-by items, though, will always be there, because as Portillo says, “This is Chicago food.”

In a single week Portillo’s goes through 130,000 pounds of Italian beef and 35,000 pounds of Vienna Beef hot dogs. Nationwide the company sells 31,000 pounds of French fries a day. To keep costs down Portillo’s supplies itself through its commissaries. The company also owns 90 percent of the real estate its restaurants stand on. “We don’t owe 10 cents,” Portillo says.

Today there are 38 Portillo’s restaurants (and dozens of other connected businesses, including nine Barnelli’s Pasta Bowls and a catering division that ships to all 50 states), and when a Portillo’s opened last year in the Phoenix area — a k a the westernmost suburb of Chicago — 500 people stood in line, and cars clogged the drive-through to a standstill.

Portillo and his wife have come a long way from the days of washing the original store’s pots and pans in their home bathtub. Remember, there was no running water in that little trailer. One night, after a bathtub washing session, Dick was feeling low, questioning his decision, wondering if he had done the right thing with his family’s money. As the tub drained, Sharon rubbed his back and comforted him. It was then that they noticed the mustard ring around the tub and collapsed into fits of laughter knowing that somehow everything would work out.

“It’s the American dream if you think about it,” Portillo says as orders get called out over lively conversation and old-time jazz. “Not bad for a kid from Mohawk Street.”

Not bad at all.



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