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My morning with Dick Portillo

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Growing up in the town next to McDonald’s headquarters, I was around a lot of restaurant execs from grade school on. Not only did I know the kids of presidents and EVPs at McD’s, but there were a lot of big-chain franchisees in the area—especially Yum Brands, for some reason. Being around so many high-powered folks in the restaurant industry, it takes a lot to intimidate me or catch me off guard. Yet learning that I’d scored an in-person interview with Dick Portillo, founder of the Portillo’s hot dog chain (that I eat at more than I’d like to admit), left me school-girl giddy.

A lot of restaurant execs, especially in today’s social media-heavy world, are out in the open. While they may not be super easily accessible, they do speak at conferences, give some of their time to reporters, etc. Mr. Portillo is not as out there. So, needless to say, my team at Restaurant Business gave me huge kudos for getting an audience.

I was pretty proud of myself, too. But (and this caught me off guard), I was nervous. Besides the fact that I conduct the vast majority of my interviews over the phone, I was going to be face to face with someone who didn’t just lead a chain I respected but, unlike a lot of the CEOs I’ve spoken with, created the concept from the ground up. I went in with so many questions about the menu creation, the systems and the overall operations.

And have I mentioned the drive-thru yet? Because, above all else, that's the biggest thing that impresses me about Portillo's. The food is made to order and feels more premium than your typical burger joint, yet (and even with a super complicated menu) the line moves crazy fast and my order is always right. It goes to something he told me: "Long lines never impress me, but long lines that move fast impress me." 

Yet sitting there, in his office, I threw out a lot of my questions. Hearing the story of how he built the billion-dollar chain, I was impressed more so by the founder’s drive and willingness to break traditional restaurant how-tos. He wasn’t a business major who had laid out a detailed multiyear business plan with fancy spreadsheets and advanced projecting. There were years of struggle. "People have no idea how hard it was," he told me. "It didn’t come overnight. It came from passion and sacrifice and hard work." But it was his entrepreneurial spirit and making inroads with the right people that made the difference. "When an entrepreneur gets excited about an idea in business, it's hard to explain. It's like the adrenaline goes racing and it's all you can think about," he told me. And, he said, it's a feeling that not many people will understand. Except maybe Danny Meyer or Lettuce Entertain You's Richard Melman, he added.

It wasn't schmoozing with private-equity folks that got Portillo's off the ground; it was hands-on, on-the-ground efforts. He was in restaurants every single day up until he sold the chain. His first marketing campaign—that really led to a boom in business for his first hot dog shack—stemmed from asking a regular customer who owned a paper business if he could print flyers on leftover scraps. He was turned down by a bank for a loan to open his second stand, but the owner of the shopping plaza his first hot dog resided in saw the potential and gave him the loan instead. And throughout the process, he was learning. "When I first opened, I did it wrong. I did a lot of things wrong. But every mistake that a made was a learning experience," he said. 

So maybe that’s the story the restaurant industry should be telling. Getting past my fan-girl mentality while hearing all about the success and growth of one of my favorite chains, I had a thought: Why aren’t we talking more about the entrepreneurial spirit that can come out of this industry? Yes, a lot of startup restaurants fail. But a lot don’t. 

We’ve heard the stat from the National Restaurant Association: One in three adults in the U.S. had their first job in a restaurant. And we know that a lot of those folks move up to manager level. Heck, one of those McDonald’s higher-ups I knew growing up started by working in a store. But what we don’t talk about as much are the people who built businesses. The founders of these successful chains have stories to tell. And one big takeaway from those stories: This isn’t necessarily an industry that requires an MBA to make it. So maybe let’s focus on telling these stories more, countering the protests that this is an industry that beats down on the hourlies by paying minimum wage and painting the picture that this is an industry that allows even people without master’s degrees to create and lead and be a success. Because, according to Portillo, it's not an impossible nut to crack. "All it takes, along with just a little luck, is total dedication to the basics of business every year. A real desire to please customers."

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