Portillo’s founder brings Chicago taste to university area

Portillo’s founder Dick Portillo stands in front of a replica of the original Portillo’s hot dog stand nicknamed “The Dog House.” ORACLE PHOTO/BREANNE WILLIAMS

Not many people have to deal with mustard rings in their bathtubs.

But that was the norm for Dick Portillo, 76, who emptied his family’s life savings to open up a hotdog stand inside of a cramped trailer 18 miles west of Chicago, over five decades ago.

In front of a replica of that trailer — nicknamed “The Dog House” — less than a week before Tuesday’s opening of the newest addition to the Portillo’s chain on Fowler Ave, he stood reminiscing on those grueling early days.

“We had no running water. So, I had five 50-foot garden hoses that I strung up on a reel,” Portillo said. “I had to run them across the parking lot and attach them to a (faucet) behind an old food store, run back, fill up the steam tables, run back and roll them up.

“Most days, I would take the pots and pans and put them in a shopping cart.  My wife, (Sharon), would have the bathtub filled up with soap and water because she knew about when I’d be coming in and we’d get on our knees and scrub them with little green scrubbies.”

Portillo’s has come a long way since its inception in 1963, expanding not only its menu — including Italian beef, sausages and other Chicago delicacies — but its market as well. 

Portillo took his taste of Chicago cross-country with locations in Arizona, California, Wisconsin and now his second Florida location.

Despite what he now deems a great spot in the forefront of the University Mall shopping center, Portillo admitted that a year and a half ago, while scouting possible landing spots, there were some reservations about the final location.

“There was some controversy initially on the location because it seemed the shopping center was under a bit of distress, but we knew they were in the process of renovating and we wanted to be on the ground floor of that,” Portillo said.

But finding the spot wasn’t hard. Through the use of analytics accumulated by the company’s shipping across the country, Portillo was able to seek out new markets to expand upon with Tampa and Brandon being hotspots for Chicago transports.

“I kept all of the data on the shipping, from where it was going to what they were ordering and where they lived,” Portillo said. “So, I was able to pinpoint the area that had a built-in market.

“A couple years ago, I read an article that said that most of the people who left Chicago and moved to Florida were in a certain area — this area.”

Florida’s first Portillo’s opened in Brandon in April, which has been a hotspot for Chicago natives and Floridians alike since.

According to Portillo, the same companies he competed with as a young entrepreneur five decades ago have come to recognize the now-household name.

“I started out of a trailer. My competition at the time was all of the big guns —McDonald’s, Burger King — and they all had a lot more money than I had,” said Portillo, who claims the average Portillo’s sells more burgers than the average Burger King.

“Now they don’t like Portillo’s. They fear Portillo’s.”

The company hopes expanding into the college demographic will bring much of the same success.

“We definitely look to do community outreach with other organizations and USF,” said Portillo’s Marketing and Advertising Manager, Marc Trevino. “We want to be very closely tied to (USF). That’s something we’re definitely looking at, especially working with their athletic programs and other student events.”

What started out of a small, single-fryer venue has now grown into what Portillo always knew it would, in part due to his business savvy, hard work and luck. 

But to him, it all goes back to his high school sweetheart Sharon, who stuck by him throughout the journey.

In all 45 locations across the country, the words “Dick loves Sharon” are carved in cement or written on the wall.

“That was my partner,” Portillo said. “She was the one that when I would come home and be dog tired, she’d be right next to me on her knees scrubbing the pots and pans; because a lot of women would’ve said ‘I’m getting rid of you.’”