Workers Reveal What It's Really Like To Work At Portillo's

In the sphere of regional franchises, hot dog hero Portillo's is something of a legend. Starting as a street cart in 1963, the business has infected the Chicago area ever since, spreading a feverish desire for Windy City classics like Chicago-style franks and shredded Italian beef to over 67 locations nationwide. Founder Dick Portillo sat in the driver's seat of the business up until 2021 when the establishment entered the stock market by going public. 

Hiring good staff in high numbers (estimated at 6,000, per Zippia) is in large part how Portillo's has excelled as a chain. Any Portillo's restaurant you walk into will be teeming with uniformed professionals serving up its world-famous weenies in style. What's more, Portillo's employees are well-regarded for their hospitality and go-getter attitudes. CEO Michael Osanloo told Nation's Restaurant News, "we have unbelievable people in the front lines who just bust their butts every single day, taking great care of our guests." 

Getting hired at Portillo's typically offers a promising start into what could be a long-term career. Whether it's the free grub or plentiful opportunities for advancement, employees enjoy many advantages at the fast-casual institution. Yet if there's any beef to be had with the company, it's the sometimes piddling wages and fast-paced environment, but such are the ups and downs frequently found at most service jobs in modern America. From the Portillo's employees themselves, it's time to dig into the day-to-day routine behind this Illinois-based empire. Here's what they have to say about their work.

There are some great perks to working at Portillo's

Should you get hired by this hot dog company, you should know that the perks you'll receive are rather decent compared to many other fast food establishments. Benefits such as health insurance (including vision and dental coverage), paid time off, and access to a retirement savings plan, are all advantages Portillo's proudly gives to its employees. In addition to earning extra money on major holidays or in inclement weather, a couple of freebies are thrown workers' way, such as free uniforms and up to $10 worth of food on the house. 

However, it's important to note that these perks, as attractive as they seem, only apply to full-time staff members (via Zippia). Since past and present employees often complain about getting scheduled low hours, likely, plenty of workers don't enjoy the spoils as they might wish to. Many workers say they didn't get any perks at all (via Indeed). A crew member on Indeed confirmed this, attesting to the chain slashing schedules so that employees would fall below the 40-hour threshold. It's a loophole frequently used in the corporate world to avoid providing benefits and by extension, supporting the workers with solid stability.  

Although the chain promises flexible scheduling, many former and current workers say their availability isn't respected or even taken into account when supervisors assign them long shifts. It seems that, unfortunately, optimizing profits can take precedence over empowering laborers in some locations.

Employees have to move fast

Because it is first and foremost a fast food joint, Portillo's takes pride in slinging its signature weenies to the masses in quick fashion, whether they dine in or drive through. Since the place is constantly buzzing day and night, employees often have to rush like the wind to quell the crowds' hunger, and this can take an extensive amount of energy. Running laps from the restaurant to the drive-thru, dressing dog after dog on the assembly line — we're already out of breath just thinking about it, let alone doing that labor for real.

One cashier acknowledged the restaurant's manic speed on Indeed but admitted that the tasks themselves are still manageable even during a time crunch. Shifts can arguably even fly by when you don't have time to be gazing up at the clock. Some people, including a former salad bar worker on Indeed, even enjoy hustling in their Portillo's location. However, one former employee doesn't downplay the exhausting atmosphere at Portillo's, to the point of warning recent hires that the intensity can be somewhat of a culture shock if you're not already used to it (via Indeed). 

If being saddled with dozens of orders simultaneously sends rivers of sweat down your spine, fear not. You'll learn the ropes in no time, according to a team member on Indeed. That will make keeping up with the endless demands a relative cakewalk, they claim.

It can be great for gaining experience

Young people graduating from school and into the real world may feel a bit lost as to where they should focus their ambitions. Lacking job experience isn't a bad thing — you just need the right place to get started. Portillo's is a potentially good entry point, even if you don't plan to go into food service. That's because you'll learn the basic skills to set you up for success, according to many current and former employees. These include learning more effective communication, engaging in real teamwork, and gaining useful kitchen competency. These tools are essential to any field, and as a crew member added, makes Portillo's "a perfect job for anybody" (per Indeed). To another former worker writing on Indeed, the gig is a "decent job for beginners." 

Fast food roles like the ones at Portillo's typically pay minimum wage and offer flexible scheduling to boot. Of course, it makes sense that high school students would be drawn to casual vibes and relaxed hours to sharpen their abilities. In a blog post on Portillo's website, staff member Griselda Matias recounted snagging work at the counter-serve spot as a high school sophomore. While her initial motivation for joining was to make her own money (surely every teenager's dream), she also received a promotion. As Matias recalled: "I remember feeling so excited — it was so exciting to gain a little bit of independence for the first time."

There's a lot of multitasking

Welcome to the fast food world, where being pulled in every direction like a human pretzel is as ordinary as the phrase "may I take your order?" Many Portillo's workers report juggling a lot of duties at once. Having touched on the swift momentum needed to endure a shift, it's not a stretch that employees might have to, well, stretch themselves thin. Multitasking, no matter what role you're in at Portillo's, is an essential part of the job. A head cashier described their routine on Indeed, where they were tasked with disassembling supplies and washing down counters, in addition to taking orders at the register and interacting with customers. It's not uncommon to be assigned to cover multiple areas within a single day, either (per Reddit). 

Some of this chaos may be a reality of working in food service, but it's encouraged to a degree at Portillo's. As another cashier put it, "you really need to pay attention to what you're doing" (via Indeed). Yet according to a former manager, the main culprit of this chaos is most likely a lack of staff. Providing some clarity in a Reddit thread, the alleged employee divulged how store higher-ups would purposely keep the employee pool low to extract more productivity without spending more to hire and pay new staff. The COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed to a recent drop in new fast food hires.

Memorizing all those customizations can get stressful

Ever notice those random letters scribbled on your Portillo's bag? That's the chain's shorthand for dictating orders and modifications. Cashiers will mark down the requests — think no onions, extra cheese, or everything on it — and then pass it to the line cooks to translate code-breaker-style. This sort of old-school system is still used by some restaurants (Waffle House is notorious for it), but this shouldn't downplay the fact that deciphering, let alone memorizing, these weird jumbles can be tricky. "The hardest part of the job was learning the custom abbreviations," said one employee (via Indeed). 

Since the eatery's website even features a guide to interpreting the abbreviations, it's not surprising that it would be just as much of a mystery to newbie employees as to diners. A former worker called the process "horrific" on Indeed, and added that their experience as a first-time employee (with zero training, no less) made the situation all the worse. Even if the requests for modifications are fairly no-frills, like a beef sandwich without peppers, there's certainly a learning curve to understand what the heck "B N/P" means. There's also the potential for error should a crew member misread the handwriting and prepare something totally off-base. Messy penmanship, a lack of training, and a confusing system means that so much can go wrong. 

Drive-thru duty at Portillo's presents the most challenges

Visit a Portillo's and you'll see that customers can either sit inside the restaurant or grab their order quickly at the drive-thru. From employees who've tackled both stations, it's clear that operating the takeout sphere is way more exhausting and, in some cases, could even get a little dangerous. Besides the pick-up window where orders go from the intercom, workers also go through the line of cars and ring up transactions on tablets. As a result, employees may be standing and moving around for long stretches without any breaks in between. 

According to a current employee in Chicago, the cons of this setup far outweigh the pros. Drive-thru service happens whether it's rain or shine. This means that dealing with inclement weather, from heatwaves to blizzards, could be on the table during a given shift (via Indeed). The risks in this line of work are considerable, which is why the chain supposedly offers hazard pay to workers who have to deal with it. But as many Indeed reviews show, the practice isn't universally enforced. Implementation is often left up to individual managers. 

As a current cashier wrote on Indeed, their restaurant allegedly finds ways to keep employees outdoors for as long as possible. When it's chilly, for example, they claimed that "you cannot go inside to warm up until all the cars in the drive-through are gone which never happens."

Many employees can't stand the rhymes

Order a hot dog at any Portillo's location, and you'll probably hear voices spouting out sing-song-y rhymes from behind the counter. That's because employees are supposed to insert a quip with each order, such as "Number five, your order has arrived" or "Number nine, it's your time to shine" (via Reddit). The Seussian ritual is a little goofy, which is the point — Dick Portillo himself introduced it as a way to jazz up service. But it's obvious from worker testimonies that the founder would be more amused by the custom than they would. "A lot of employees don't like rhyming!" remarked a Reddit commenter, while another chimed in on the regrettable one-liners that are still buried in their brain to this day. 

Of course, employees aren't expected to have the rhymes down pat. A past worker confirmed on Reddit that there's a guide on hand for new hires. And while employees wouldn't get in trouble for not engaging in the practice, supervisors could get testy with those who opted out. 

As a whole, there's no shortage of staff who find the schtick to be at least a little embarrassing, or even downright awkward if they're uncomfortable busting out witty repartee to strangers who just want to grab their chili cheese dogs in peace. However, at least one worker writing on Indeed says that some people do get a kick out of the tradition. Maybe the hate isn't as strong as it seems.

Some orders get on their nerves

Portillo's fans are aware of the many different forms that menu items can take when condiments and toppings come into consideration. However, your taste in toppings might come under scrutiny from the employees themselves. Even though Portillo's has decreed itself to be a judgment-free zone, that doesn't really stop employees from commiserating with each other over little customer habits that grind their gears. 

In many instances, it's not necessarily the order that's a problem, but how it's requested. Take these grievances levied by alleged employees on Reddit. "They ask for an ever (hot dog everything) but then say no peppers. That'll just annoy me," one commented. Another vented about diners who ask for a "plain" hot dog, except that they also want ketchup on it.

We know how particular Chicago eaters are about their hot dogs. Just ask any Windy City local about their feelings regarding ketchup and they'll likely say it's a sin worse than death (or at least a regrettable faux pas). A newscaster touring the kitchen of a Portillo's location in Tampa received shrieks of disapproval (and some side-eye from the employee guiding the segment) as he attempted to squirt ketchup onto one of the eatery's prized beef sausages (per WZOK).

Employees sometimes have to deal with terrible customers

Some, but thankfully not all, customers can be absolutely terrible to a restaurant's staff. Portillo's workers aren't immune to receiving poor treatment. Indeed is flooded with negative accounts written by service workers who have witnessed a lot of unpleasant characters in their stores. Some customers, they sleeve, are seriously lacking in manners and act downright rude when they don't get what they want. If a single mistake occurs, diners aren't afraid to take out their fury on the workers. According to a former cashier, "The customers are willing to scream at you if you don't get the orders right or if the kitchen screws up the order" (via Indeed).   

Obviously, having to handle mean visitors is an all-too-common situation in the food service industry. However, customer conduct at Portillo's can go beyond churlish or immature behavior and straight into menacing territory. An employee who was stationed at the drive-thru window experienced diners who made threats and tormented them from their cars as they worked (per Indeed). NBC Chicago reports that Portillo's restaurants have been the site of physical altercations brought on by customers, and in extreme circumstances, violent robberies (via Chicago Tribune). 

Although these latter examples are rare, putting up with bad attitudes can be a defining feature of customer service jobs. When it does happen, just serve them with a smile since it's probable you might not even see them again. What's that old saying about living well? 

Pay can be low

Considering all the perks employees receive, there are plenty of reasons Portillo's attracts people from all walks of life — but the money definitely isn't one of them. When it comes to compensation, Portillo's sits squarely in the dog house for its low salaries and equally low satisfaction from workers past and present. While some positions reap up to $15 an hour, the majority of minimum wage roles earn less (via Indeed). The hot dog chain falls flat on financial contentment across Indeed and InHerSight, where reviewers ranked its standard of living at 2.3 out of 5 (ouch). 

If workers don't feel complete disdain for Portillo's meager wages, then they often note that the pay doesn't match the labor that's demanded of them. Many employees on Indeed suspect that cost-cutting had accelerated since the company went public. Workers have staged strikes when the business has refused to hear out their frustrations regarding the paltry income. The Forest Park Review reported in 2019 that Illinois-based employees banded together to call for beefed-up paychecks and better treatment from supervisors. Two years later, another group of employees walked out o their restaurant for many of the same reasons, most notably poor wages (per Chicago Sun-Times). 

Many employees stay for a long time

The fact that some of Portillo's workers choose to stay on for years, if not decades, arguably means the company must be doing something right. On the restaurant's blog, there are testimonies from longtime workers who've put in the time and subsequently enjoyed the benefits that come from commitment. Even taking Portillo's faults into account, there's no doubt the company values individuals who have invested extensive hours into their careers. For example, anyone who met the 20-year mark when the founder's namesake was in charge allegedly received vacations as a thank-you. No wonder the turnover rate is quite low (via Better).

Horacio Rebello Trejo, a line cook who bounces between five separate restaurants, has been active on the Portillo's team for close to 30 years. Deanna Wilson, who was hired on a server in the mid-90s, now works at the corporate level as a Compensation Analyst (per Portillo's). Patti Alumbaugh, a 23-year veteran of the chain, says that it's satisfying to see co-workers who've put in the time thrive. "I so enjoy celebrating the anniversaries of other team members that have also been with Portillo's for 5, 10, 15 ,20 plus years. It is so exciting to be part of a growing brand where quite honestly, the sky has no limit."