Portillo confesses he knew nothing about owning a business, food costs, or suppliers when he opened The Dog House. He even struggled to properly cook a hot dog. To learn, he visited some of Chicago’s most revered hot dog spots to see where they purchased their supplies and to observe their operations firsthand.
The business slowly blossomed, and The Dog House—renamed Portillo’s in 1967—earned a steady following. By the early 1970s, Portillo had opened multiple locations and realized he had something special.
“The lines kept getting longer, our sales doubled each year, and I got more secure in my thoughts,” he says.
Inspired by his time in the U.S. Marine Corps, Portillo adopted four core principles for his restaurants: quality, service, attitude, and cleanliness.
Those four elements—combined with offering guests an experience, which Portillo defines as good food, fast lines, and a pleasant sensory environment—remain Portillo’s secret sauce.
A fun operation
Portillo says fear was his fuel in the early days. It’s what compelled him to be cautious and careful, yet creative and compassionate.
“I started with $1,100 and a hot dog cart,” he says. “I was up against people who had a lot more money, so I had to think differently.”
Early on, Portillo’s menu embraced the Chicago staples: Vienna Beef hot dogs, Italian sausages, Polish sausages, and Italian beef. Over time, the menu expanded to include chicken, fish, salads, and a prized chocolate cake developed by Portillo’s daughter-in-law, Gina.
“There are more margins in some of these other items, and that keeps the bottom line solid,” he says. “Plus, I think our guests appreciate that they can go to Portillo’s seven days a week and never repeat a meal.”
Portillo’s eateries, no two of which look alike, reflect Portillo’s love of history, particularly Chicago history, and include memorabilia from the 1920s through 1960s.