Homewood welcomes Portillo's Hot Dogs and its psychedelic bus

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Homewood welcomes Portillo's Hot Dogs and its psychedelic bus

September 15, 2015 - 17:36
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Company founder Dick Portillo, center in the blue shirt, 
and Homewood Mayor Richard Hofeld cut the ribbon 
marking the opening of the 40th Portillo's restaurant.

Joele Andersen is a long-time Portillo's fan. For 30 years she's had to travel to enjoy her favorite food, so she was the first Homewood resident in line for the opening of the Homewood Portillo's Hot Dog restaurant Tuesday at 17500 Halsted St.

First-in-line Portillo's fans, 
from left, Joele Andersen of 
Homewood, and Pete and 
Charleen Robinson of 
Waterman.
 

Because opening day is special, she thought she might make it a "threefer": one meal after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, dinner when her husband got off work later and maybe even a late-night snack before closing.

"I'm excited," she said. "I've been pushing the mayor for years to get Portillo's here."

Homewood Mayor Richard Hofeld didn't need much pushing. He's been working for a decade to persuade Portillo's to open a restaurant in Homewood, and company founder Dick Portillo was quick to give Hofeld credit for the decision to do so.

When asked what led to the decision to open a restaurant in Homewood, he said, "I can say it all in one word: persistence. I would get phone calls, letters, about every month or so. It shows persistence does pay off. This is the man responsible for it," he said, pointing to Hofeld.

Hofeld praised the quality of Portillo's products and said he was grateful for the jobs the company brought to town. Nicole Quinn, Portillo's executive recruiter, said the company had initially planned to hire 200 workers for the Homewood location but ended up hiring 240. 

Hofeld also expressed appreciation for the working relationship between the village and Dick Portillo.

"He's probably one of the finest people we've ever worked with," Hofeld said. 

The bus has arrived
The design of Homewood Portillo's is unique among the restaurants in the chain. The 40th restaurant is the only one with a 1970s theme. 

Designer Jeff Atkins stands in
the "hippie bus" and talks 
about the unique 1970s 
design of the new Portillo's 
restaurant.

The centerpiece of the design is a portrayal of a "hippie bus," complete with psychedelic exterior paint. 

Designer Jeff Atkins was on hand and explained that the idea for the theme came from Dick Portillo. During discussions about the Homewood store he mentioned the iconic 1970s-era bus as a feature. Atkins said he took it from there.

"That sets the tone of the store," Atkins said. 

The bus has a life-sized poster of Dick Portillo at the wheel, and 1960s- and 1970s-era images and designs inside and out. Many visual touches recall the Chicago music scene of the time, he said.

'It'll only get better'
Dick Portillo's story is familiar to the restaurant's fans, how he took a small hot dog stand and built it into a successful chain by providing good food and customer service. But last year he sold the business to Berkshire Partners, a private equity firm (not connected with Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway firm). 

If customers have concerns about the impact the sale might have on their beloved restaurant, Portillo wants to put them at ease.

"Customers experience will be the same," he said. "If I didn't think that I wouldn't have sold the company."

The restaurant business is a complex one, he said, and he felt a firm like Berkshire Partners could keep the company growing in spite of the challenges. He said he was careful to choose a buyer with a commitment to the culture of the business he built.

He noted the loyalty of many of his customers.

"It took a lot of years to build that," he said. "It's because of the passion me and my crew had for pleasing our customers" that Berkshire sought the company. 

He said Keith Kinsey, CEO of the Portillo Restaurant Group, understands the power and value of the Portillo's story.

"He understands the value of our culture," he said.

Kinsey concurred. He said the company still looks to Dick Portillo for guidance and has kept him on board as a consultant.

"He thinks he got out of this, but we're going to work him harder than when we was here," Kinsey joked. "He's still so passionate about it."

No. 1 fan
Joele Andersen was the first Homewood resident in line, but she was behind two other Portillo's fans.

Pete and Charleen Robinson of Waterman, Illinois, were the first in line, a position they vie for with every Portillo's opening. 

The Robinsons might be the quintessential example of the loyalty Portillo's inspires. Pete has eaten in every Portillo's restaurant and has attended the opening of every new store for the past 12 years, he said. That includes the one in Scottsdale, Arizona.

They both profess a love for Portillo's food, but their loyalty to the restaurant can be attributed more to the man than the hot dog. 

Pete says he had his first Portillo's meal back in 1964, when Dick and Sharon Portillo were operating out of a little shack in Villa Park.

Robinson's bill came to $1.02, but he only had $1. 

"He said, 'You're a high school student. I'll get the tax,'" Robinson said. "I've been eating at Portillo's ever since."

An occasion
The opening attracted a crowd of area Portillo's customers. When the doors opened at 10:30 a.m. the line stretched around the building and vehicles filled the drive-through lane.

Portillo's Director of Marketing Nick Scarpino said sales figures could not be released but offered a couple of statistics that indicate the volume of business the new store did, including more than 1,000 pounds of beef and nearly one ton of French fries sold.

"Yesterday, sales in Homewood were the highest out of all of our restaurants," he said in an email message Wednesday.

The occasion was attended by a number of area dignitaries, including Homewood trustees Anne Colton, Jay Heiferman, Lisa Purcell, Ray Robertson and Karen Washington. State representatives Will Davis, Anthony DeLuca and Al Riley attended, as did state Sen. Napoleon Harris and U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly.

Homewood was also represented by Village Manager Jim Marino, Assistant Village Manager Mike Marzal, Police Chief Larry Burnson, Deputy Police Chiefs Bill Alcott and Denise McGrath, Fire Chief Bob Grabowski, Economic Development Director Tom Vander Woude, Events Manager Allisa Opyd and Marketing Coordinator Anna Devries.

Portillo's is open 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. The restaurant is closed for Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.


Photos by Quincy Crump/HF Chronicle.


Related stories:
Mayor: Portillo's coming to Homewood (HF Chronicle, Jan. 27, 2015)
Zoning amendments pave the way for Portillo's development in Homewood (HF Chronicle, March 12, 2015)
Job applicants flock to Portillo's hiring center (HF Chronicle, June 23, 2015)
 

More information:
Portillo's website
Portillo's No. 1 fan