Stop a local in the Chicago area, inquire about the closest Portillo’s restaurant, and you’re almost certain to get directions to the Chicago-based chain’s nearest location (alongside some ordering suggestions). With its signature Vienna beef hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches, Portillo’s is a Windy City icon, a beloved local favorite that many current and ex-Chicagoans speak about with reverence for its quality food, efficient service, and lively atmosphere.
The farther away from Chicago, however, the less weight the Portillo’s name holds—the company has focused its expansion over the years almost entirely on the Chicago metro area, weaving itself into the fabric of the Second City.
Several other quick-serve concepts around the U.S. share a similar story: fame and fanaticism in one market, unfamiliarity in others. The strategy stands in stark contrast to the industry’s aggressive-development norm, one in which multiunit success comes from threading together several markets across the U.S. But a handful of companies have discovered that, with fervent followings and an identity rooted in their hometowns, it is possible to thrive among ever-increasing competition, a growing regulatory environment, and shifting consumer tastes.
Here, QSR profiles five regional concepts to find out how they stood the test of time and became an entrenched, celebrated player on their local food scene.
James Coney Island
Since its 1923 founding by a pair of Greek brothers, James Coney Island has been a Houston staple. Its Frito pies and classic Coney—a signature wiener served on a hand-cut bun and topped with mustard, chili sauce, minced onion, and cheese—remain familiar comforts to local residents. Each day, James Coney Island sells about 20,000 Coney Dogs across its 21 Houston-area locations.
“We have a real story in this city spanning 90 years, and the pictures to prove it,” says Darrin Straughan, president of James Coney Island.
As much as that history is a beloved asset, Straughan says, the company’s past success does not cloud the concept’s future. Since becoming company president in 1994, Straughan, a native Houstonian, has worked to balance the chain’s rich history with its future prospects, closing outdated stores in favor of newer outlets that better reflect Houston’s demographic shifts and revamping the chain’s menu with the addition of Greek salads, Asian sandwiches, and turkey chili.
“Because of the competition and costs in today’s market, we can’t just sell hot dogs,” Straughan says. “Now, there’s no way we could—or would—ever get rid of our original Coney, but we also want to overcome any veto vote.”
As a reflection of the brand’s progressive vibe, James Coney Island enjoyed one of its most successful, innovative promotions in 2013. The Chefs and Show Dogs series featured exclusive, limited-time hot dog concoctions from some of Houston’s most noted chefs. One of the promotion’s special offerings, for instance, featured a Kobe hot dog with chorizo and Cheddar wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon, served on a pretzel bun with homemade date-tomato jam and chermoula sauce.
“Chefs and Show Dogs gave us relevance and integrity with a younger audience,” Straughan says, noting the importance of blending James Coney Island’s loyal following with a new generation of Houstonians.
For all of the chain’s momentum and talk of the future, however, Straughan still isn’t ready to push James Coney Island out of its Houston base.
“We truly value being a Houston brand,” he says. “We’re in the fourth-largest city in the country by population, but the largest in square miles, so there’s a lot more real estate to capture in this area alone.”
Customers visiting any Portillo’s in the Chicago area are almost certain to run into a crowd. Alongside Chicago favorites like the Maxwell Street Polish and Italian sausage, the Chicago-based quick serve sells upward of 35,000 pounds of hot dogs and 150,000 pounds of Italian beef each week among its 34 Chicago-area locations.
Dick Portillo founded his namesake concept, which he initially called the Dog House, in 1963 by investing $1,100 into a no-frills, 6-foot-by-12-foot trailer he established in Villa Park, a blue-collar community in Chicago’s western suburbs. From those modest roots, Portillo built a culinary empire in the Windy City and one of the Midwest’s largest privately owned restaurant enterprises, a feat accomplished without franchising, partners, or investors.
Portillo’s spokeswoman Patty Sullivan says Portillo’s lives by four simple rules: quality, service, attitude, and cleanliness.
“Portillo’s grew to be successful because of the quality of the food and the high standards of service Mr. Portillo has set,” Sullivan says of the company’s founder, who is still the restaurant’s energetic leader.
Those company staples have allowed Portillo’s to maintain a relationship with Chicago diners spanning 50 years. “We have customers that tell us they’ve been to the original Dog House and continue to eat at our restaurants,” Sullivan says. “Their children and grandchildren have grown up on Portillo’s.”
Each Portillo’s interior is different, featuring themes like the Prohibition era and a 1950s diner, while the menu has evolved from its Chicago staples to include a famous chocolate cake and a diverse mix of salads, which the concept added to its menu almost two decades ago.
“We want to provide our guests with the best food and service in an environment that’s unique and full of energy,” Sullivan says. “We listen to our customers and use their feedback to constantly assess our menu. … As our customers’ tastes change, so must we.”
In 2013, Portillo’s readied for its move into a new 52,000-square-foot commissary in Chicago’s western suburbs while opening four new locations, including two spots in Arizona, which, like Portillo’s two existing units in Southern California, were driven by interest from Chicago ex-pats eager for a taste of their beloved hometown brand.
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