It was late 2020 when Michelle Hook ended 17 years of fruitful career-building at Domino’s to accept a CFO appointment at fast casual restaurant chain Portillo’s.
“The two things that I was looking for were to be passionate about a new brand and to feel a culture fit,” recalls Hook, who adds that she had long imagined someday leaving Domino’s to join a smaller company that she could help to grow.
“I just didn’t care about going to a bigger company or ‘X,’ ‘Y,’ or ‘Z,’” continues Hook, who tells us that she ultimately took a leap of faith with regard to there being a culture fit at Portillo’s.Read More
“I actually never stepped into our headquarters until my first day on the job and had met in person only with the CEO, since this was during COVID times and the rest of the hiring process had been done on Zoom,” comments Hook.
Fast-forward 15 months to when the Omicron variant was still grabbing headlines and inflation had begun to rattle the economy—and Hook could not escape the notion that the traditional Portillo’s restaurant needed to change for the post-COVID world.
“I thought to myself, I think that we’re overbuilding our restaurants—we need to think about where the puck is going,” remembers Hook, who notes that Portillo’s dine-in customers in today’s post-COVID environment account for only roughly 35 percent of the chain’s volume.
“I had come from Domino’s, which didn’t have these big dining rooms and had built out a heavily digital business,” remarks Hook, who reports that Portillo’s digital business represents only 20 percent of overall sales.
This subject soon surfaced at an executive strategy session at which Portillo’s CEO, Michael Osanloo, tasked Hook and Portillo’s head of marketing with leading an initiative dubbed “Restaurant of the Future.”
“I think that Michael knew that I’d take on the project by using a data-driven lens,” comments Hook, who points out that the project has involved “time and motion studies” involving specific restaurants and their conveyance activities within the kitchen.
“Getting the engine right in the car is super important to us,” she says. “This will bring benefits not only on the cost side of things but also for our team members, who will find it easier to complete their work.” –Jack Sweeney
“Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Seek out new opportunities that will challenge you and help you to grow along the way. Push yourself and, in the end, you will be a stronger and more well-rounded CFO.” –Michelle Hook, CFO, Portillo’s
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CFOTL: Tell us about Portillo’s … what does this company do, and what are its offerings today?
Hook: We are actually a 60-year-old restaurant brand that began here in Chicago in 1963. Our founder, Dick Portillo, started us out of a little shack that we call “the doghouse,” and we’ve been growing ever since. In particular, we’ve been accelerating growth since Dick sold the company to Berkshire Partners in 2014 and we subsequently went public and IPO’d in October of 2021. We have 78 restaurants in nine different states today and a growing national presence.
Here’s why I think that we’re special in the restaurant industry and why I left an amazing brand like Domino’s to come here: Portillo’s has some important differentiators.Read More
I think that we have a very distinctive and diverse menu that offers something for everyone. With regard to thinking nationally, I get this question all the time: “Well, who’s a national competitor of Portillo’s?” But it’s not like we’re in the pizza business, where you can point to different national competitors like Papa Johns and Little Caesars and Pizza Hut. The same thing goes for tacos, chicken, and so on. You can’t really do this with Portillo’s, so my answer to this question generally is “everybody,” and particularly everyone in QSR and fast casual. I think that we’re definitely a hybrid of QSR and fast casual, with some elements of casual dining thrown in.
When you go to dine-in, you find that our restaurants have a very energetic and engaging atmosphere. When you walk into a Portillo’s, you feel that each one is unique to the local environment. You see a bunch of what I call “tchotchkes” on the wall—things that give you a sense that you’re in a local community restaurant. You’re going to smell the flavors of Portillo’s. You’re going to hear music playing. It’s going to be a very vibrant atmosphere.
Another distinctive aspect of Portillo’s is that we were definitely multichannel before there was such a term. Portillo’s has dine-in. We have double drive-throughs in all of our restaurants. We work with all of the off-prem delivery services. We have a pretty good catering business, as well.
What’s most important—what’s a very big differentiator for us—is our culture. As I’ve mentioned, this was important to me in terms of what it took for me to leave Domino’s. It’s a differentiator for me. It’s very values-based. Our values are family, greatness, energy, and fun, and we do values-based hiring. I feel that these aren’t just words on a piece of paper or a wall but concepts that we live and breathe every day. When you create this values-based culture in a public-facing company, it becomes very important to your success. When you go to eat at Portillo’s, you’re going to interact not with me but with that frontline team member. So, if we take care of our team members, they’re going to take care of the guests, and this will ultimately take care of the shareholders—which I view as that virtuous cycle.
At the beginning and end of the day, though, you can’t have a good restaurant concept unless you have craveable food. Our food is craveable. Think of Chicago favorites like Italian beef, Chicago hot dogs, french fries, onion rings, and our burgers, which are fantastic. We have a very good line of salads that surprise a lot of people—I think that our average restaurant sells something like $700,000 in just salads alone.
Our AUV of $8.5 million right now is unheard of for a fast casual/QSR restaurant concept. The only other company that possibly can touch this is Chick-fil-A. But our AUV and the volume that we do are really just unprecedented in the industry, which is fascinating to me.
Portillo’s | www.portillos.com | Oak Brook, IL