Why Portillo's new CEO won't mess with success
Keith Kinsey jumped into the employee-packed line behind the hot dogs, Italian beef and roasted pepper station and tore open a bag of buns.
No sooner did those buns leave the bag than they were filled with hot dogs, relish, and tomatoes and quickly handed down the line. Workers at Portillo's in Downers Grove kept up the frantic pace. Kinsey got no slack.
Hungry customers were handed their lunch, not realizing the company's CEO just helped prepare their meal.
Kinsey, 61, is the first CEO of Oak Brook-based Portillo's since the founder, Dick Portillo, sold the company to Boston-based Berkshire Partners in 2014. Kinsey stepped into his shoes about seven months ago with plans to keep the food the same but continue to expand the chain nationwide.
"We want it to be seamless, as if Dick has never left," said Kinsey, who took over in July. "We don't want to screw it up."
Restaurants make up much of Kinsey's resume. The former Noodles & Co. president is now relying on his years in the industry and his CPA background to keep one of the area's top chains a local favorite.
The Moline-born, University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana grad held leadership positions with McDonald's Corp., Chipotle and other companies. The former accountant, who moved last year from Broomfield, Colorado, to Burr Ridge, enjoys the diversity of the industry.
"What I love about restaurants is that you get into many different things," Kinsey said. "You can get also into procurement, accounting, real estate, construction and food. What other industry lets you do that?"
He realizes Portillo's isn't the typical fast food restaurant. Acquired in 2014 for about $1 billion, Portillo's new owners aim to expand the chain to all 50 states. It has 41 restaurants in Illinois, Indiana, California and Arizona with more expected to open later this year in Wisconsin and Florida.
Additional restaurants are expected to open in the Chicago suburbs by next year, and the eatery on Ogden Avenue in Naperville is slated for a makeover.
Berkshire Partners plans to open about five to seven new restaurants each year. All have been under the guidance of former owner Dick Portillo, who selects and buys the land for new construction. He leases the sites back to the company. Hot demand
The chain has become wildly popular, with lines of cars often waiting in the drive-through lanes at nearly all hours of the day. Residents in several communities, including Gurnee and Vernon Hills, rallied and signed petitions to get a Portillo's restaurant. And other towns, including Lake Zurich, have Facebook pages requesting that the chain consider their community.
Meanwhile, Berkshire's expansion plans don't worry restaurant analysts. They believe Berkshire and Kinsey know they have a good thing. Each of the established restaurants have had success and "massive" sales, said Robert Goldin, vice chairman of Chicago-based Technomic, a restaurant research firm owned by Oak Brook-based Winsight Co.
"They're really a different, really unique chain," Goldin said. "They generate sales of about $7 million or $8 million per restaurant per year. They have huge volumes. There is nothing to compare them to. They (Berkshire Partners) bought a winner, and they should nurture it. They won't mess with success."
That success started in 1963 when Dick Portillo opened his first hot dog stand in Villa Park. The concept and menu expanded throughout the region and to many states where former Chicagoans long for a taste of home. Staples include Chicago-style hot dogs, burgers, Italian beef wet or dry, and the pepper-and-egg sandwiches sold during Lent.
These menu items have built the popularity of the company. Kinsey plans to closely monitor the company's growth.
"We won't just chase a number. If it's too fast, we'll know what to do," he said.
The owners say they have no plans to change the menu or recipes. The company will continue to roast and slice its Italian beef, cooking the meatballs, sauces, roasted peppers and other items at facilities in Addison and Aurora. They have huge vats that cook each of those items consistently. The food is then packaged and shipped to the restaurants, Kinsey said.
Maintaining that consistency is important, Kinsey said, especially as competitors continue to up the ante.
"We're all about freshness," Kinsey said.
Portillo's key factsFounded: 1963 in Villa Park
Founder: Dick Portillo
CEO: Keith Kinsey
Owner: Boston-based Berkshire Partners
Locations: 41 in Illinois, Indiana, Arizona, California; coming soon in Florida and Wisconsin
Employees: about 4,600
Sales: more than 14 million hot dogs and 22 million slices of chocolate cake last year, 110,000 pounds of Italian beef each week
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