June 14, 2021
Business


'I'm willing to wait': Long lines not enough to deter diehard Portillo's fans during pandemic

Amid indoor dining ban, new phenomenon affects Portillo's locations: long drive-thru lines

1 of 2

One store had to quell a beef with a neighbor over long lines obstructing the entrance. Another uses its own people on traffic control to keep things as easy as cake.

Since indoor dining in Illinois currently is prohibited amid the COVID-19 pandemic, another phenomenon is affecting Portillo’s drive-thrus across northern Illinois: Already long drive-thru lines have grown even longer as restaurants work to accommodate the rush.

“They are extra long,” said Larry Moore, a manager at the Portillo’s in Sycamore. “We kind of cut that in half by opening curbside, but you can go on the other side for drive-thru orders. That’s mostly been our approach to the lines now.”

The company's website has a "Get Obsessed" marketing campaign, showing the lengths to which fans go for food and soliciting stories from fans about their history with the popular Chicago-based Portillo's chain, which serves Italian beef, hamburgers, hot dogs and more.

Founded in Villa Park in 1963, the staple has spread across the state, with chains a popular stop for American food enjoyed by generations. The pandemic doesn’t seem to have slowed diehard fans, although lines for drive-thru service instead of in-person dining add another layer to the experience.

Tony Tarkowski, an Earlville native living in DeKalb, said he goes about weekly to the Sycamore location. He said he’s waited as long as 20 minutes, with the line backed up onto the access road, to make sure he gets a burger.

“I think their burgers are one of the best I’ve ever had,” said Tarkowski, who said he’s been eating at Portillo’s all his life. “I’m willing to wait for the good food that they have there.”

Moore said those lines in Sycamore can get up to 35 cars deep and stretch into the parking lots of neighboring businesses. Ivan Munoz, the general manager of the Batavia location, said vehicle lines stretch about 30 deep, with staff taking on traffic control duties to keep the line from winding into the street.

“We try to direct our traffic as much as possible,” Munoz said. “Our entrance is on a main road that goes into the parking lot. Directing traffic has become an added job.”

Barbara Moroz of Sycamore said she goes about every other week – and did so much more frequently back when her grandkids were younger.

She said she’s been impressed with the Sycamore workers, who take orders outside to help facilitate a shorter wait time.

“The people who stand outside and take orders are so nice,” said Moroz, who said the Italian beef is her favorite but the chicken Cobb is to die for. “They are so gracious and kind. They never rush and always say thank you.”

Managers in Crystal Lake and St. Charles would not speak without permission from corporate, and the Bolingbrook location could not be reached for comment. Calls, emails and social media messages over the course of a week to Portillo’s corporate location were not returned.

Munoz said he thinks most customers understand the situation the chain is in, unable to offer indoor dining as the state looks to curtail surging COVID-19 numbers. He said most are loyal customers, and that buys a lot of goodwill.

“We’ve been a staple since the ’60s,” Munoz said. “People grew up on this food. It’s part of their diet. Our food is great. Great quality. Great consistency. It’s about our daily work and our team putting in 110% into the items that we prepare to bring those flavors to life.”

Moore, of Chicago, said he “grew up on this food.”

While Munoz said the primary traffic goal is keeping cars off the main street in Batavia, Moore said the challenge in Sycamore remains ensuring lines don’t interfere with business neighbors.

Moore said the line has obstructed Lundeen’s Discount Liquors, 1760 DeKalb Ave., just west of Portillo’s.

“When we’re rocking, we’re out to the street, and her customers can’t get in,” Moore said. “So we’ve got to hurry up and get them in, get our customers out of the way so her customers can get in. We had quite a few issues back in the day, but we all talked and got it under control. They don’t come screaming at us anymore.”

Both Munoz and Moore said the goal is to get people through the line, from the point of order to handing over food, in about six to seven minutes. Moore said that threshold used to be about three minutes, but with growing lines amid the indoor dining ban, that’s proved “impossible.”

“If you got a beef, fry and a drink, yeah it’s possible,” Moore said. “But if you’ve got two cheeseburgers, two beefs, four hot dogs, six large fries, you gotta get every station. It’s time-consuming.”

Moore said he had his fry cook count the burgers served on Sunday. From 11 a.m. to
4 p.m., the Sycamore location served 700 burgers on what he called a "slow Sunday."

In Batavia, Munoz and his staff play traffic control on the weekends, he said.

Moore said customers can get “feisty” in Sycamore at times, but most understand. He said the location also has started doing deliveries in-house instead of using a third-party, which means store staff is able to rectify any issues with deliveries themselves.

“You might get lucky and get someone that lives five minutes away,” Moore said. “But you might get someone that lives on the other side of DeKalb, near the [Northern Illinois University] campus. So that takes you away from the store. But they’re happy, and we’re happy we could fix that problem for them.”

Linze Rice of Berywn said she’s a longtime fan of the food and worked at the Sycamore location in 2009. She said she braved a long line at the Forest Park location last week.

“Of course, it whittled down in lightning speed,” she said in a message to Shaw Media. “Needless to say, this year has been all about comfort food, so treating ourselves to something that tastes good but also makes us feel good – it’s definitely been worth any kind of wait. “

She said she eats at the restaurant every month or two, and she and her husband always order the same thing to split: a big beef with no peppers cut in half with extra juice on the side, a large cheese fry with extra cheese and an unsweetened ice tea.

“Last week we split a burger, and it was his first one,” Rice said. “Their burgers are char-broiled and so good. A totally underrated menu item there, in my opinion.”

Munoz said the desire for Portillo’s food and the willingness by local customers to wait in long lines shows how ingrained the chain is in Chicago and northern Illinois culture.

“We’re in a lot of people’s memories,” Munoz said. “Think about now – it’s Christmas, people come with their families to hang out inside. Unfortunately, we can’t right now because of [COVID-19]. But it is an icon. Portillo’s is an icon.”

Eddie Carifio

Has been the sports editor in DeKalb since 2014.