Most Chicagoland residents are familiar with Portillo’s restaurants. The chain—known for its Chicago-style hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches—has been a fixture in the area for six decades, serving beefy goodness on premium buns.

Now, leaders of the business are sinking their teeth into an ambitious growth plan. During a recent earnings call, Michael Osanloo—Portillo’s president, CEO, and director—told NBC 5 Chicago that the company plans to grow from its current 85 restaurants (in Illinois, Michigan, and other states) to a total of 920 over the next several years. That means the company is going to need a lot more buns for those beefs and wieners. 

To learn more, Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery checked in with Garrett Kern, vice president of strategy and culinary with Portillo’s (whose favorite product on the menu, by the way, is the Chicago-style hot dog).

Jenni Spinner: Could you please share the ‘nutshell’ version of Portillo’s history?

Garrett Kern: In 1963, Dick Portillo invested $1,100 in a small trailer to open the first Portillo's hot dog stand in Villa Park, IL, called "The Dog House." Six decades later, Portillo's has transformed into a rapidly expanding, fast-casual restaurant concept with more than 80 locations across 10 states. Portillo's is best known for its craveable Chicago street food, including Chicago-style hot dogs, Italian beef sandwiches, char-grilled burgers, fresh salads, and its famous chocolate cake. You can read more here.

JS: While Portillo’s been a part of the Chicago landscape for six decades, you’ve been strategic about its growth. Could you please talk about the milestones between the 1963 opening of the Dog House, to now?

GK: Since the 1963 opening of “The Dog House,” Portillo’s has transformed into a rapidly expanding, fast-casual restaurant concept. We opened more than 10 restaurants last year, increasing our presence to 85 restaurants across 10 states, while still expanding in the Chicagoland area. 

Our successful IPO in 2021 was a huge company milestone and allowed us financial flexibility and improved capital structure to continue expanding our brand. We opened our first Portillo’s Pick Up, a smaller concept that does not include a dining room, in Joliet, Illinois in early 2022. We have since opened a second in Rosemont, IL. Our direct shipping business, Shop & Ship, which we’ve operated for 20+ years, has allowed us to build our national brand presence throughout the years. Our direct-to-consumer shipping channel allows us to ship our Italian beef, sausages, hot dogs, and chocolate cake across all 50 states.

We take a strategic approach to our long-term growth. Among the data we review to uncover areas of opportunity is where we most send Shop & Ship orders—we see that a region has a high volume of orders and we know that there’s already demand for Portillo’s in that area. For example, we opened our first restaurant in Texas in 2023. That also happens to be the state that had the highest number of Shop & Ship orders, so we knew there was untapped potential for growth there.

JS: Recently, you’ve announced to take your expansion plans to the next level—please tell us what your plans are, regarding the number of locations you plan to open, states you plan to reach into, etc.

GK: We estimate that our Minimum Achievable Market is 920 units, which includes 800 full-scale restaurants and 120 alternate formats. With just 85 locations open as of early 2024, we have a long runway ahead. Moving forward we will continue to accelerate our growth and recently updated our growth targets from 10% annually to 12-15% annually by 2026. We plan to explore opportunities to expand into new markets, like Colorado, Nevada, and Georgia within the next few years. 

JS: Could you please talk about the products Portillo’s offers, and what it’s best known for?

GK: Portillo’s has a distinctive and diverse menu, offering high-quality options that suit the tastes of any and every guest. Our menu items include craveable favorites such as Chicago-style hot dogs and sausages, Italian beef sandwiches, fresh-made chopped salads, char-grilled burgers, crinkle-cut French fries with signature cheese sauce, homemade chocolate cake, and milkshakes. We are best known for our Italian Beef sandwiches made with our own slow-roasted beef and Chicago-style hot dogs with all the fixings, as well as our Cake Shakes.

JS: Then, the bread and rolls your items are served on are known for being high quality—could you please tell us a bit about how you’ve selected bakery partners and maintained those relationships over the years?

GK: We take pride in selecting great supplier partners and nurturing those relationships to ensure consistency in quality and taste when it comes to all of our ingredients, including our bread and rolls. Our supplier partners produce excellent bakery products that we trust to sandwich some of our most iconic menu items, including our Italian Beef sandwiches, char-grilled burgers, and Chicago-style hot dogs.

JS: How do you expect you’ll handle the hot dog and hamburger buns, and rolls for the beefs, as you grow?

GK: We are taking a thoughtful approach in every aspect when it comes to our growth, including our strategic sourcing of all restaurant and menu items. We know that our food is the critical part of what makes guests line up time and again for their favorite menu items, and we are committed to serving up delicious food, including buns and rolls, in every market. As we scale, our supply chain team is heavily involved in making sure we keep our kitchens stocked and meet consumer demand.