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Portillo’s gets ready to debut its first dining room-less restaurant

The first Portillo’s Pick Up location, with a triple drive-thru, is slated to open Feb. 1 in Joliet, at a time in which the newly public fast casual is looking for ways to trim its labor usage and its geographic footprint.
Photo courtesy Portillo's

Portillo’s on Monday set an opening date for its first restaurant without a dining room, a triple drive-thru prototype that could mean big things for the fast-casual Italian beef chain, its CEO said.

The first Portillo’s Pick Up restaurant is slated to open Feb. 1 in Joliet, Ill., about an hour outside Chicago.

The 3,750-square-foot location, about half the size of a traditional Portillo’s and requiring far fewer employees, is coming online at a time in which the newly public brand is looking to maximize its labor efficiencies.

This latest omicron wave has hit the chain hard, Portillo’s CEO and President Michael Osanloo said.

“We now have twice as many people out because of omicron than during any other time of the pandemic,” Osanloo said. “That’s a big deal.”

He said the chain hasn’t been forced to cut hours of operation or temporarily close stores, like many restaurants have, because they’ve been shifting employees to other Portillo’s locations in need.

“We are getting smarter at doing more with less,” he said.

Plus, Portillo’s has been looking hard at ways to “minimize non-productive labor effort,” he said.

For example, the chain does a brisk catering business and it used to package orders in boxes that had to be fully assembled and taped. Now, Portillo’s has switched to packaging that pops together like a jigsaw puzzle. “It literally saved thousands of hours,” he said. “We didn’t have to do that. It was totally non-productive.”

Portillo’s has also enlisted its bread supplier to portion rolls in the appropriate size for heat-at-home Italian beef orders.

“Historically, we cut up all the bread and portioned it,” Osanloo said. “We save hundreds of hours of needlessly cutting bread.”

Vaccine requirements for dine-in business in Chicago and elsewhere are having a “chilling effect” on sales for Portillo’s, he said. But he said drive-thru and pick-up sales are helping pick up much of the slack.

“Chicagoans have learned how to pivot,” he said, noting that Portillo’s order-takers are currently tasked with asking for proof of vaccination for dine-in customers. “It’s a work in progress and we’re figuring it out as we go.”

As for the new Portillo’s without a dining room, Osanloo said he is “very cautiously optimistic.”

The triple drive-thru location (with two lanes used for traditional orders and the third reserved for order-ahead pickups) can be built for about two-thirds the cost of a standard Portillo’s, he said.

“That means the economics look amazing,” he said. “More importantly, it opens new frontiers for us. There are a lot of places we’d love to put a Portillo’s, but it needs over two acres. We need 120-plus parking spots.”

The upcoming Joliet restaurant sits on just three-quarters of an acre.

The design might allow Portillo’s to take a page from the Domino’s playbook, he said. The pizza giant has long used “fortressing” as a growth strategy that involves saturating a geographic area with units to build brand awareness while shutting out competitors.

“Could you imagine what we could do in Chicago if we found we could build drive-thru only restaurants?” he said. “We could be fortressing. This is great learning opportunity.”

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