Yet guests won’t have to decipher where Portillo’s traces its roots. “It is Chicago-inspired street food, but in a restaurant that’s locally friendly. I think that’s really important for how we build and how we think about our designs going forward,” Osanloo says.
Portillo’s venues, at nearly 8,000 square feet, are built for the off-premises rush, a trend coming pre-COVID but lit ablaze by dine-in closures. Drive-thru runners move down the queue of cars in lanes to take orders, getting tickets to the kitchen as quickly as possible. During lockdowns, when employees weren’t required to man front-of-house operations, it was common to see eight or nine runners moving among vehicles at peak hours. Guests were getting orders in before they reached a menuboard. Even when lines stretched 30–40 cars deep, the company said it was getting people out in 5 or 6 minutes. Portillo’s also benefited from a two-lane system that allows cars to peel off and exit if they get food before cars ahead of them do.
Portillo’s is also actively building dedicated entrances so third-party drivers and curbside customers can park nearby, get their food, and leave. “We’re being really smart about where the puck is going,” Osanloo says.
The brand is preparing to pilot a pick-up-only restaurant (no dining room), complete with three drive-thru lanes, in Joliet, Illinois, as well, and has a ghost kitchen setup with Kitchen United in downtown Chicago.
The Joliet location, Osanloo says, is going to be a highly branded experience where employees wear uniforms that resemble a NASCAR race. It’s on a 1-acre pad instead of the 2-plus-acre lots the company typically targets. “I think it’s an exciting test,” Osanloo says, adding it should open in Q1 of 2022.
So where is Portillo’s going exactly? Osanloo has a two-pronged map on the table. One strategy will be to build from the chain’s strong Midwestern core—natural and organic expansion into familiar states like Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio.
The other vector is all about opportunity. Portillo’s has the Sun Belt circled so it can capitalize on the three fastest-growing states in the country: Florida, Texas, and Arizona. Beyond what the demographic numbers tell Portillo’s, Osanloo says, there’s clear latent brand demand. “I know it because we ship food there,” he says. People who tap out of Chicago winters often end up in these very boom markets, too, Osanloo adds.
But to the shipping point, Portillo’s has 67 stores in nine states, yet in the past five years, has shipped 2.7 million sandwiches (Italian beef, sausages and hot dogs) via its direct-to-consumer shipping channel across all 50 states. And Texas happens to be the No. 1 landing spot. In turn, Portillo’s will open a flagship in the Dallas suburbs.
The brand’s performance hasn’t relied on a single product, either. While known for its Italian Beef (23 percent of sales) and hot dogs/sausages (14 percent of mix), Portillo’s sold more than $600,000 worth of salad per restaurant last year. No single menu category accounted for more than 23 percent of sales. Its lunch and dinner dayparts were nearly even as well, with 52 percent of business taking place during the former.
Portillo’s is also steady throughout the week. Before COVID, Monday through Wednesday all mixed 12 percent of sales. Thursday rose to 13 percent, with Friday at 17 percent, Saturday at 18 percent, and Sunday slipping to 16 percent.
“I think it's one of the things about our concept that I love so much,” Osanloo says. “People use us for multiple occasions every single day.”
As important as any element going forward, Osanloo adds, will be protecting “the feel and the culture and the vibe at our restaurants.” It starts with a non-negotiable brand standard of having experienced GMs in restaurants (a position paying into the six figures these days). “In the last several years we have really leaned into being a values-based organization,” Osanloo says. “And so we have our people who have defined our values as being family, greatness, energy, and fun. … That's what we stand for and what I love now is that that's how we hire.”
“Being a valued-based organization and only opening restaurants with an incumbent Portillo’s GM is the secret sauce for us to keep our culture vibrant as we expand outside Chicago.”