Q&A with Dick Portillo
Out of the Dog House, a new book by legendary Chicago restaurateur Dick Portillo tells of a life well lived. From humble beginnings as the owner of a hot dog stand in Villa Park, Portillo built a fast-casual restaurant chain that is the pride of every Chicagoan and the place everyone loves to come home to. In 2014, after 51 years as a hands-on owner of his namesake brand, Portillo sold the group of 50-plus restaurants for almost $1 billion. Today, Portillo, who also owns Honey Jam Café in Downers Grove, Bolingbrook and Arlington Heights, divides his time between homes in Oak Brook and Naples, Florida. That is, when he is not following a new passion for adventure travel — in November 2019, look for a new documentary, “Mystery at Bougainville.” Narrated by Tom Selleck, it relates Portillo’s recent journey of discovery into Papua New Guinea. That’s just one more way this Chicagoan with roots in the west suburbs lives life to the fullest.
You’re a native Chicagoan. Can you tell our readers a little about your early life?
DP: I was born on Van Buren St., then we moved into what was called the Mother Francis Cabrini Green Housing Project. Many years later, it became Cabrini Green. Back then, it was just low-rise townhomes. The high rises didn’t come in until I was long gone. Later on, we moved to the suburbs — Bridgeview, right next to Chicago. I graduated from Argo High School.
Were you a good student?
DP: No. I wasn’t. I have a slight learning disability. I’ve had it all my life. But so did Henry Ford and Steve Jobs and Richard Branson. Those people, and Steven Spielberg, too, they all thought out of the box, and so did I. I think a slight learning disability is sometimes an advantage and not a disadvantage. I know in my case it was. I always thought differently and I still do today.
After high school, you entered the Marine Corps. How did that lifestyle suit you?
DP: Well, I wasn’t particularly crazy about all the discipline, but I think it was the best education I could have had. I took three things out of the Marine Corps that I could use in business. Of course, the weapons and all that stuff doesn’t do you any good. But I learned the value of organization. I learned the value of teamwork. In particular, I learned the value of training. I put those three things into my business.
In what ways?
DP: When I sold the company, I had a little over 4,000 employees in four states. I had to get all those people to work as one, to work as a team. As for organization and training, we’re a complex brand. When you walk into a Burger King or a Wendy’s, look at how simple that is compared to Portillo’s. Look at the simple menu. Look at our menu. We sell a lot of hot dogs, but hot dogs are only 12 percent of sales. We have hamburgers. We have two kinds of chicken, two kinds of fish, two kinds of sausage. Great salads, too. Then we have one of the best drive-thru systems in the country. Some of our restaurants do over 50 percent of business in the drive thru. And in order to make that system work properly you need high volume and trained people.
There were other great hot dog stands around well before you started out — Gene & Jude’s in River Grove, for instance. What was it that made Portillo’s pull ahead?
DP: Well, I was more hungry, if you know what I mean. I was making a decent living selling hot dogs. It was good living. Not at the beginning. Believe me (laughs). I was scared stiff, I didn’t even know how to make a hot dog. Business was terrible, I was washing the pots and pans in a bathtub, for crying out loud. I gave it every dime I had. Every dime my wife and I had. It was a struggle. But I was selling a lot of hot dogs. After the second year, business started doubling. Doubling, doubling. Double on top of double on top of double. I worked a 70 hour week easy. But, God help me, I loved it. I would get up in the morning thinking about the future and about the restaurant. It was like a drug. It was pretty good — but with very low margins. I was in a fairly new part of Villa Park, at North and Addison. I looked and I thought all those people coming to my hot dog stand are from the city. Two things were in my mind. First, there are a lot of Italian beef stands in Chicago, too, and there’s more margin in Italian beef. You can charge more, so you’re going to make more. And if I were to do that, I could hit the people who like hot dogs and the people who like beef. And so I had to build a building. I couldn’t do anything with the additional sandwiches until I had brick and mortar. When I was building the restaurant, I would go there every day and watch when they dug the hole and poured the foundation. It was very exciting for me — it’s hard to explain. Gene & Jude’s had a fine hot dog. It’s a great hot dog. But limited. Look at the margins in that — the average Portillo’s does north of $8 million a year. The largest volume restaurant that we had did over $17 million. Now you cannot do that with hot dogs.
Each Portillo’s has a different vibe. Did you come up with themes yourself?
DP: I came up with all the ideas until I sold the company. I also collected all the artifacts. I’d go to the Kane County Fairgrounds and Sandwich Flea Market and travel to places pretty much all over the country to get a lot of what my wife called junk!” [laughs). It was fun and the customers like it. That’s what I mean about thinking out of the box.
Your customers are amazingly loyal to Portillo’s. Can you talk about loyalty?
DP: My thought on marketing was the better the experience you can give customers, the more they’re going to tell their neighbors and loved ones. That beats the heck out of any coupon. We have a cult-like following and we didn’t gain that by doing anything other than giving great service that you can’t get anywhere else.
Your employees are loyal, too . . .
DP: We’ve had one lady with us for 49 years and a lot of people for 20 or 30 years. My assistant, my right arm, has been with me for 17 years. I believe that respect is like an invisible chain. I respect those people. They do all the work, I get all the credit. They’re in the trenches — yeah, a lot of it are my ideas, but they make it happen. As a leader you have to appreciate — and I learned this in the Marine Corps — the way the troops feel. They’re human beings, not machines, and I respect them and hopefully they respect me as well. I have a zero tolerance policy . . . for anybody that treats others with disrespect.
Is it important for you to be hands on?
DP: Always, always. I love being in the kitchen. I love talking to the customers, getting customer reactions. I used to wait in line and try to feel what the customer felt, see what they see and listen to them, what are they saying. In the restaurant business, it’s not just the food, it’s the experience.
After the restaurant sale, you took to travel in a serious way. Tell our readers about your recent adventures.
DP: I’m a WWII buff and a former marine, so I make many trips out into the Pacific. The most exciting one was when I went to Papua New Guinea and Bougainville, and, well, God bless America, I tracked Admiral Yamamoto, the highest ranking officer of the Japanese Navy. He planned the attack on Pearl Harbor. He died when his plane crashed right off the coast of New Guinea. I wanted to see the crash site, so I took a group of people there and we hacked our way through the jungle. Our guide, Andy Giles, found a gold tooth in the mud next to the plane. We took that tooth to experts in the dental profession. Now, when Yamamoto’s body was found, half his jaw was blown off. So the question is, is it possible that’s Yamamoto’s tooth? I’m going to Japan in February to try to get dental records and we’re making a documentary about it with the WWII Foundation.