Portillo’s President and CEO Michael Osanloo on Navigating the New World as a Beloved Brand

Portillo’s President and CEO, Michael Osanloo, joined the Executives’ Club of Chicago to discuss how the beloved Chicago restaurant reaches a new legion of fans nationwide. Based on his successful career in food service and retail, Osanloo sat with moderator Andy Lansing, CEO of Levy, to discuss lessons learned and his passion for growing brands and cultivating culture within the companies he leads. 

The Early Years of Osanloo 

Portillo’s President and CEO Michael Osanloo

Like many great entrepreneurs and business people, it took Osanloo a few years at school — at institutions such as, the University of Chicago, University of Illinois and University of Michigan — before he found his passion for building brands. He studied to become a doctor and went to law school, but ultimately ended up in business school, followed by a few years working with well-respected brands such as P.F. Chang’s

Eventually, Osanloo joined Portillo’s to grow the brand from a locally beloved Chicago staple to a nationally recognized brand. Osanloo says it was arguably not doing great when he took over the brand. He respected everything founder Dick Portillo did to build Portillo’s but wanted to help move the company to the next stage. He wanted the rest of the country to love Portillo’s as much as Chicago.

“I’m very respectful because it’s [Portillo’s] name on the door,” says Osanloo. “But I have a responsibility to the 8,000 employees, hundreds of thousands of investors we have gone to, and the future. It’s important always to honor the past and understand where you’re from, but you can’t live beholden to it.” 

Identifying The Soul of Portillo’s

Osanloo spent his first 30 days with Portillo’s working on the frontlines. He participated in the opening and closing shifts, spent time in the restaurants during the lunch hours and saw the interworkings of as many restaurants as possible. Doing so allowed Osanloo to know where the disconnect was. “It had become really clear to me that we had lost our way,” says Osanloo. 

Osanloo recalls a seminal moment when he walked into one of the most prominent Portillo’s restaurants and found the general manager in his office, head in hand, stressing about making a SWOT analysis. The GM, Osanloo later discovered, was spending more than 30 hours a week on administrative tasks and only 20 hours a week running the business. And it wasn’t just this location. Across nearly all 45 locations, GMs were spending more time on PowerPoints and charts than working to build and support their teams. 

After working in the field of Portillo’s, Osanloo felt the home office needed to do more to support the restaurants, starting with freeing up GM’s time from admin work. He also changed the name of the home office to the restaurant support center to further emphasize the role of the office team. “It’s a psychological thing,” says Osanloo. “There’s no point of sale system in Oakbrook [where the home office is]. We don’t make any money here. We are a cost center. We live in service to the frontline people who are paying the bills.” 

Building a Great Team Starts With Values

Another essential step in successfully bringing Portillo’s to the national landscape was ensuring the brand had the best possible team. For Osanloo, the best team meant building a value-first company and hiring individuals based on their value system. 

“I look for people with a family-based approach to things,” says Osanloo. “I want people who aspire to be great. I want people who like to have fun at work.” 

Companies constantly harp on the importance of values, and when push comes to shove, many companies will abandon their values during hardship. Portillo’s is not one of those companies, and they proved that during the COVID-19 pandemic

When COVID-19 started shutting down restaurants, many industry giants began closing their doors and laying off employees. Not Portillo’s. Of Portillo’s 8,000 team members, a vast majority of whom were hourly frontline workers, no one lost their job. Instead, Osanloo said the company used this time to cross-train and start a 5013c, the Heart of Portillo’s Fund, to help those struggling during this unprecedented time.

“We did all this because this brings to life our value system,” says Osanloo. “This is how family behaves. Times are tough. You don’t just go and lay off half your workforce. You take care of them. Those frontline people are our most important aspect as a company. If you take great care of them, they will take great care of your business.”

Because of their dedication to their company values and hiring individuals who represent them, the turnover rates at Portillo’s are 20 to 30 percent lower than the industry at the hourly level. “Here’s the secret. Treat people well,” says Osanloo. “Take care of people. Don’t think of them as a cost. Think of them as an investment in your brand. When you do that, great things happen.”

More from Better:

Jessica Braun Gervais is a Chicago-based freelance writer specializing in health, wellness, and fitness. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from Columbia College and has written content for various health and wellness institutions. Jessica Braun’s passion for wellness comes from her life as an elite athlete competing in Muay Thai kickboxing competitions across the country. In addition to sharing her expertise through writing, Jessica Braun also works as a group fitness instructor and personal trainer. When she’s not writing or training, Jessica Braun enjoys reading historical fiction novels, discovering new coffee shops, and cuddling with her cattle dog, Brady.

  Who We Are       NFP Support       Magazine       Programs       Donate