How 1993 Brown's Chicken murders changed Frank Portillo's life, business forever
Since Jan. 8, 1993, Frank Portillo Jr.'s thoughts at this time of year have been with seven people.
Portillo was president of Brown's Chicken and Pasta when franchisees Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt and employees Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis were found dead in a now-former restaurant at Smith Street and Northwest Highway in Palatine.
Accompanied by another Brown's executive, Portillo raced to the scene from his West suburban home early that morning 25 years ago after seeing a television newscast about what happened.
The sad memories of that day can surface for him at any time, but they have been a given on Jan. 8 each year.
"I've never experienced such emotion in my entire life," said Portillo, 84. "And it is just something that will probably be with me until the day I die. I don't cry anymore. It used to be for a long time, I'd think of it and tears would come into my eyes when I would talk about it. I just remember the victims' families. That was just heartbreaking."
Unsolved for nine years, the case was cracked open in 2002. Former restaurant worker Juan Luna and friend James Degorski were convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Stressing that his problems will never compare to the tragedy that struck the victims' families, Portillo found himself trying to cope with the murders while running a popular restaurant chain that suddenly found itself in a financial free fall. After the killings, the company saw two consecutive years of more than 30 percent sales declines.
Crisis communications experts and major vendors urged Portillo to change the eateries' name in hopes of turning around the business, said his daughter, Toni.
He refused out of loyalty to John Brown, whose first fried chicken restaurant opened in Bridgeview in 1949. Portillo partnered with Brown to start franchising the eatery in 1965. Brown died about a month before the Palatine killings.
"He figured it was disrespectful," said Toni Portillo, who became company president in 2006 and served in that capacity until an investment group bought Brown's in a bankruptcy auction four years later. "If we had to do it all over again, we should have changed the name. And my dad and I talk about it a lot."
The murders ended a 20-year period of growth for the chain. From the early 1970s until 1993, the chain expanded to about 300 locations in 13 states, Toni Portillo said.
But restaurants started to close amid eroding sales after Jan. 8, 1993, which the Portillos blamed in part on the stigma from what commonly has been called the "Brown's Chicken massacre." Customers voiced fears about visiting the restaurants at night.
Today, the chain is down to 23 restaurants, all in Illinois, according to its website.
The Portillos estimate at least 3,000 people were affected by the closures, a figure they base on a typical number of employees, franchisees and their families. Brown's filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and it was scooped up by Pop-Grip LLC for $585,000 in 2010.
"It was a terrible tragedy," Frank Portillo said, "and the business people that owned Brown's (restaurants), they had nothing to do with the tragedy, but yet their investments got hurt pretty bad."
Despite the company's struggles, Brown's remains in Palatine. Portillo said it was important to him and many customers to keep a location in the suburb, so another Brown's opened in 1995 near Hicks Road and Northwest Highway.
Michael Halter and a partner bought the location in 1998. He said he's asked every day whether his restaurant is the site of the killings.
"It's still in people's minds," he said, adding that the restaurant has done well over the years, thanks to a loyal clientele.
David Henkes, senior principal at food-service research firm Technomic Inc., said Brown's now is considered a "minor chain" in the restaurant industry. It ranked 831st among the 1,500 chains followed by Technomic in its latest report from 2016, and it has fallen from a $36 million business in 2001 to about $24.3 million in sales two years ago.
Chicago-based Technomic's research shows Brown's sales have declined by a half percent annually between 2013 to 2016, a time in which fried-chicken restaurant revenue has been rising overall.
"Listen, what's done is done and they are where they are," Henkes said. "That was 25 years ago, so there's a lot of consumers who weren't even born then. Look at a lot of the millennials and the Gen Y's -- that '93 is ancient history for a lot of them."
Toni Portillo said she now believes it was for the best Brown's was acquired by Pop-Grip, allowing her father to enjoy retirement with his wife of 66 years, Joan. Frank Portillo said the murders on Jan. 8, 1993, led him to become a good-government crusader who pushed for tougher gun laws.
"It made my dad a different person," Toni Portillo said.