Portillo's, the Oak Brook chain known for Chicago-style fare like Italian beef and cake shakes, is tapping Michael Osanloo, currently the CEO of P.F. Chang's China Bistro, as its new top dog.
Osanloo, 52, will replace Keith Kinsey, 64, as Portillo's CEO effective Oct. 1, Portillo's announced Monday. Kinsey, who took the helm in 2015 after founder Dick Portillo sold the company to a private equity firm in 2014, will retire, according to the company.
For Osanloo, the job represents a homecoming of sorts. As a teen, he lived in Naperville and recalled driving his friends in a Pontiac Bonneville station wagon to the Portillo's in Downers Grove immediately after obtaining his driver's license. Osanloo also was president of grocery for Kraft Foods Group before the company's merger with H.J. Heinz in 2015.
As P.F. Chang's private equity owner is in the process of selling that brand, the Portillo's opportunity presented Osanloo a chance to "get back home," he said.
"I am thrilled to shepherd the brand in its continued evolution in becoming one of America's top fast casual restaurants," Osanloo said. "This is almost a dream come true to me."
Osanloo plans to build a home in suburban Hinsdale with his wife, Mary, and two children, ages 10 and 4. The son of Iranian immigrants, Osanloo said he respected and related to Portillo as a "self-made guy" and hopes to learn from him.
Likewise, Osanloo has Dick Portillo's approval.
"I really have confidence that Mike has the ability to continue the legacy of the company I built more than 50 years ago," Portillo, 78, said in an interview Friday.
Portillo said he expects to work more closely with Osanloo than he did with Kinsey, who held executive positions at numerous food companies prior to Portillo's, including Noodles & Company, McDonald's, PepsiCo, Checkers, Big Sky Bread Company and Chipotle.
Portillo said Osanloo's hire does not represent a strategic shift for the company. If anything, the leadership change could augur a back-to-basics approach on training employees and a renewed focus on company culture.
"We have a lot of new blood in the office and they're finally learning that the culture I started is important," Portillo said.
Under Kinsey's leadership, Portillo's has been growing its number of restaurants at a rate of 10 percent to 15 percent each year, opening its first locations in Florida, Wisconsin, Minnesota and central Illinois, adding 19 locations to bring the total to 57 by the end of this year. Last month the chain opened a new restaurant in Indianapolis, and another opening is planned next month in the Indianapolis suburb of Avon. Two more openings are currently planned next year, in Madison, Wis., and Roseville, Minn.
Portillo worries that the rate of growth could be outpacing employee training. Compared with many other quick-service restaurants, Portillo's is a complex operation in terms of menu and ordering systems. That complexity is "the moat" that protects Portillo's from its competitors, Portillo said, and training is paramount to its success.
"What I don't want to do is let the real estate department get ahead of the training department," Portillo said.
Asked whether he shared those concerns, Osanloo said he valued Portillo's opinion but hasn't yet formed his own assessment.
"Our mission needs to be on putting those on the front lines in a position to succeed," Osanloo said when describing his philosophy of leading his employees.
The balancing act between growth and execution will be Osanloo's to perform upon starting his new job. In addition to Kraft, he was senior vice president of marketing at Caesar's Entertainment Corp. and a partner at Bain & Co. He earned his MBA at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and his law degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
As CEO of P.F. Chang's, Osanloo presided over more than 300 restaurants globally, recently expanding the brand into China as an "American bistro."
If Osanloo needs any pointers on running Portillo's, a smaller chain with a devout base of customers, he won't need to look far.
Since selling the company, Dick Portillo's role has been largely symbolic. He cuts ribbons at store openings. He shakes hands. But he said he can't help himself from trying to do more from time to time, sometimes stopping in the restaurants to offer ideas and insights to the managers.
Portillo doesn't regret selling the company, he said. He's had more time to spend with his grandchildren and to travel. He's pursued his hobbies of reading and boating. He still lauds Boston-based Berkshire Partners, the suitor he chose after being courted by 24 private equity firms.
But he does miss calling the shots, Portillo admitted. After more than 50 years of building a company from nothing, it's hard to let go.
Just recently, Portillo said he stopped to clean the windows in the bathroom of a suburban Portillo's restaurant.
"A guy comes in and says, 'Aren't you Dick Portillo? Why are you cleaning the windows?'" Portillo recalled. "I said, 'Because they have spots on them.'"