The Portillo’s ‘Golden Ticket’: Where customers and associates both win

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I had my choice of numerous hot dog joints and Italian Beef stands to choose from. However, nothing brought me greater joy than when my father would pile us into the car and take us to the Portillo’s in Villa Park, Illinois. Having relocated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and being surrounded by Green Bay Packers fans has only been a minor annoyance compared to the fact that I could not find a great hot dog locally. Well, all of that ended when Portillo’s opened up their 44th restaurant and first in Wisconsin. They even added a few local touches such as Harley-Davidson memorabilia on the walls.

If you have not had the privilege of dining at a Portillo’s, it’s a Chicago-style hot dog, sausage and Italian beef restaurant. My family are raving advocates of Portillo’s. Not to be outdone, my cousin Tom Dennis and his daughter Sara (pictured above) are even more serious Portillo’s fans. They waited in line at the Brandon restaurant for more than 24 hours to be the first customers at their new Florida location. That is loyalty and a tribute to the brand Portillo’s has built.

What I learned about Portillo’s when they opened here locally is they send out Training Meal tickets. More specifically, it allows customers to come into the restaurant before it officially opens. If you are lucky enough to get one of these free Training Meal tickets, it entitles you to a complimentary meal via a limited menu and even includes dessert. This allows Portillo’s to test their operational processes in a controlled setting in advance of the official opening. Dick Portillo, the founder said it best, “There’s nothing more important to the success of our new restaurants than properly training our team members.”

Portillo’s built a reputation for its speedy and incredibly accurate drive-thru service. At many locations, you will see employees outside taking orders in the drive-thru lanes. When they opened here in Wisconsin, the drive-thru was so busy that area police officers were needed to manage the traffic. You can understand how incredibly intimidating that can be for newly hired associates if they did not already experience those operational challenges in advance when coaching, recognition, and guidance could be afforded in a more non-chaotic environment.

There are several benefits to the Training Meal approach.

Associate Retention

Portillo’s has some of the best associate retention in the Industry. Allowing new associates to practice working at peak times with ‘real’ customers is better training than you could ever get with a CBT or manual. Since these are not paying customers, the associates can work in a friendly environment that builds moral, teamwork, and confidence. These customers are much more forgiving if a mistake were to happen and are simply pleased to be part of this advance preview.

Efficiency, Efficiency, Efficiency

These Training Meals give the Portillo’s leadership team the opportunity to observe the newly hired associates and make any adjustments to staffing or areas of improvement that are needed. For example, if a particular area is slowing down the line or the associates are struggling with the point of purchase system, adjustments can be made and additional training identified.

Creating Buzz

I told everyone and anyone that would listen that I had 5 of the Golden Tickets. Since there are many in Wisconsin that are not familiar with Portillo’s, this created good word-of-mouth marketing about the restaurant. Soon, my colleagues were telling friends, relatives, and associates. Who wouldn’t want to work at the place everyone is talking about?

Early Customer Feedback

Before opening the doors to the public, this time allows the leadership team the ability to talk with their customers and learn what they liked and didn’t like. I saw Management actively engaged with customers and listening to their feedback. For example, they added a Badger Brat which is only offered in Wisconsin.  It consists of a char-grilled Usinger’s (a Wisconsin company who had their first butcher shop in 1880) fresh bratwurst served on a brat roll, topped with a Bavarian-style sauerkraut and classic stone-ground German mustard. This early feedback allowed them to ensure they were properly preparing and selling this Wisconsin delicacy.

The Training Meal ticket was a novel idea that turned out to be an exemplary training experience for employees as well as an exciting opportunity for customers to see what’s happening at Portillo’s. When customers and associates both win, then that is a recipe for success.


Brian Dennis

Brian Dennis

Brian Dennis is an author, keynote speaker, consultant and is the former Vice President of Customer Experience for Kohl’s Department Stores. For more than 20 years, Brian has been a customer service thought innovator who has demonstrated proven excellence in his field. He is the author of 2 books on customer service with his newest title ‘If The Customer’s the Co-Pilot, You’re in The Wrong Seat’ hitting #1 on the Amazon Retail Charts. He is recognized internationally as an industry expert and is a sought out keynote speaker, panelist and key contributor on the integration of customer service, omni-channel and retail. Brian was appointed to the Board of Directors for the Fisher House of Milwaukee. The Fisher House provides a “home away from home” for military and veterans’ families to be close to a loved one during hospitalization for an illness, disease or injury.

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