October 10, 2016
As Wisconsin’s first Portillo’s restaurant takes shape along W. Blue Mound Road in Brookfield, food service expert Darren Tristano has, in the same breath, both a warning and an endorsement.
“They’ve got something called the cake shake, which, if you can avoid it, I would,” deadpanned Tristano, who is president of Chicago-based Technomic Inc., a research and consulting firm for the food service industry. “Because it’s highly addictive and incredibly craveable.”
While folks in America’s Dairyland probably don’t needa new way to ingest cake and ice cream — the cake shake is created by mixing a piece of chocolate cake with ice cream in a milkshake blender — it soon will be available here, along with Italian beef, hot dogs, hamburgers and other Portillo’s menu offerings.
Portillo’s is preparing to open its doors in mid-July, Keith Kinsey, the restaurant chain’s chief executive, said in an interview.
Portillo’s will begin training employees — about 200 in all — for the new diner-themed restaurant as soon as work on the interior is far enough along.
Portillo’s has been a popular Chicago-area eatery for decades. The company started in 1963 when entrepreneur Dick Portillo opened a food trailer he called the The Dog House in Villa Park, Ill. Since the mid-2000s, Portillo’s has been expanding outside metropolitan Chicago, first in California, then in Indiana and Arizona.
The Brookfield location won’t be Wisconsin’s only one, just its first, Kinsey said.
“It just fits in with the Wisconsin community,” Kinsey said. “We’re looking all over. Madison is definitely one we’d be looking at, a nice college town. Some more around the Milwaukee area. There are several locations that, in general, we are focusing on.”
Almost two years ago, Dick Portillo sold the business to the private equity firm Berkshire Partners, although he has remained involved in his namesake business. Kinsey, a former executive at Noodles & Co., was hired as CEO last year. Among his goals is to help the company grow but maintain the food and service it’s known for in its current markets.
“It’s the quality of the food. It’s the service we have by the people on the team. It’s the attitude, the atmosphere that’s inside a Portillo’s. And then, it’s the cleanliness,” Kinsey said.
Portillo’s also has a catering business and ships its food around the nation.
In its restaurants and drive-throughs, Portillo’s prides itself on getting freshly made food to customers quickly.
“They do work fast. They usually have a number of people (taking orders) out in the drive-through,” Tristano said. “So you could be 10 cars deep and ordering food. It moves very quickly.”
The restaurant itself will seat about 200, with a patio that can accommodate about 45 customers, Kinsey said.
Tristano said Portillo’s has been able to attract customers spanning multiple generations.
“They’ve done incredibly well with the millennials and Gen Z, so they’re getting a stream of older customers and younger coming in,” Tristano said.
Kinsey said many in the Milwaukee area already are familiar with Portillo’s from visits to its Illinois locations. He predicts those customers will lead new people to the Brookfield location.
“Those individuals just start all the energy going,” Kinsey said. “That person who has had our food really gets the buzz started with the non-user.”
In metro Milwaukee, there might be no one more excited about Portillo’s coming to the Milwaukee area than Rik Helfer of Waukesha. For years, he has been driving to and from the Portillo’s in Vernon Hills and Gurnee, Ill. He’s been posting photos on Facebook tracking construction progress on the Brookfield location.
Helfer said he was working in suburban Chicago years ago when co-workers took him to a Portillo’s for the first time. He immediately was impressed with everything about the restaurant, including the employees and the atmosphere — and the food.
“I fell in love with the hamburger,” he said. “I had a piece of chocolate cake. Ever since then I’ve been hooked. It’s a higher quality of food.”
Kinsey said the most popular item on the menu is Italian beef.
“The hot dog is right up there, too,” he said.
Kinsey said the Brookfield location, which is part of the under-construction The Corridor development just west of Calhoun Road, will have 1950s-’60s diner décor, such as a jukebox, partly as a nostalgic acknowledgment of the old Karter’s diner that once operated along W. Blue Mound Road.
“We’re carrying some of that theme inside,” he said.