Taking Steve Easterbrook to Portillo’s

portillos hot dogs tray

Dear Mr. Easterbrook,

The Restaurant Business office is located in Oak Brook, just down the street from McDonald’s headquarters. Now I am, by no means, an operational genius. I’ve never run my own restaurant. I haven’t had to deal with budgets or food costs. Never have I faced a national marketing crisis. But I am a frequent restaurant user—and I can recognize a good idea when I see one. So if you’d would be willing to let me drive you around for an afternoon, there are some things I’d like to show you.

And we wouldn’t even have to go far. You could take a few pointers (and clearly already have) from a chain headquartered on the road between our offices, Portillo’s. The Chicago hot-dog chain is a local favorite—and clearly a moneymaker; why else would Berkshire Partners have acquired the chain from its founder for nearly $1 billion?

Now, according to Bloomberg Business, 70% of McDonald’s sales are made to people who don’t get out of their cars. So that’s where our tour of ideas would start—the Portillo’s drive-thru. Here’s some of what I’d like you to check out (and, I guess if you’re too busy for the driving tour, you could just read my list):

1. Get outside the window

Portillo’s—like most drive-thru operations—has a speaker-box menu. But it isn’t really used. Rain, shine, sleet or snow, staffers stand outside the restaurant and come up to diners’ car windows. There’s no screaming into a muddled speaker or unbuckling to make sure guests can reach the person inside. Plus, it adds a personal, human element, something big fast-food chains could use in today’s consumer environment. And having staffers outside provides some very specific operational benefits, too.

a. Taking orders early. I’d go out on a limb and say that most Chicagoans know their Portillo’s order long before they hit the menu board (similar to McDonald’s, people are very familiar with the menu). So staffers are waiting as cars pull up to the line, even if it is far back from the menu, to get orders started. Staffers are trained to be well-versed in the menu to answer any questions.

b. Car-side payment. So many operations with drive-thrus are freaking out about EMV implementation. The chip-and-dip readers need to be in the guests’ hands, but what happens if it is dropped out the window, driven off with, etc.? Portillo’s staffers—again, outside the window—bring handheld, wireless payment portals right to guests’ cars.

c. Food when it’s ready. There’s nothing more frustrating than when the car in front of you in the drive-thru clearly had a complicated order, and you’re stuck waiting behind them for your simple burger and soda. Because staffers at Portillo’s run the food to the cars as it comes up, they are not relegated to sticking to the order in which cars are lined up. And most locations have an extra lane, so that cars who receive their meal before the first in line can pull out and be on their way.

2. Ask again … and again

Back in May, McDonald’s revealed its “ask, ask, tell” approach to improve drive-thru order accuracy. The chain’s leaders presented it as this revolutionary new idea. Umm, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what Portillo’s has been doing since its drive-thru inception. Once a guest places the order, the order-taker repeats it back as a question. Then, the staffer taking payment repeats it again, followed by the food-hander-offer reading what’s in the bag. That’s three chances to correct any mistakes.

3. Speed without skimping on quality

Not saying that McDonald’s isn’t fast, but many of its burgers and sandwiches are prepackaged, ready to toss into a bag. Portillo’s tosses salads, grills burgers and more to order. Yet the drive-thru still feels QSR fast, despite a line that often snakes around the building. Maybe it’s because the order it being taken closer to when guests pull up. Or maybe there are more capabilities in the kitchen. Either way, Portillo’s guests feel like they are getting food that is higher quality than most fast food without added wait time.

But it’s not just the drive-through where McDonald’s could learn a thing or two. We might have to get out of the car to see …

4. In-store order calling with pizzazz

At most fast-food joints, you order, get a number and then wait to hear that number called to retrieve your food. Portillo’s is no different. But those calling the orders add a twist to make the wait time a little more fun. Rhymes, such as “42, it’s time for you” or “34, wait no more,” add the right amount of wit to keep guests entertained for the few minutes it takes for their own food to come up.

5. Ignoring uniform trends

There’s a trend towards a more casual look for staffers. T-shirts instead of button ups, jeans instead of slacks. But Portillo’s has stuck to its roots of representing an old-timey hot-dog stand, complete with collared shirt, tie, apron and hat. For Portillo’s, ignoring the trends and keeping with the kitsch has worked. It furthers the chains brand image and enhances the throwback vibe.

6. Separate “make” counters

Pasta and salads are ordered from a different counter than burgers, fries and shakes. There’s a different set of ingredients on hand, and it’s set up almost as two separate restaurants. While it’s not always ideal for me (my go-to order is the chopped salad, so I have to order separately from the rest of my party), it seems to lead to less clutter and chaos operationally during peak hours. And it also allows cooks to really focus on doing a set of menu items well versus having to prep a barrage of dishes.

Sara Rush


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