PORTILLO'S UNWRAPPED: How the Rockford Portillo's deal worked th - WREX.com – Rockford’s News Leader

PORTILLO'S UNWRAPPED: How the Rockford Portillo's deal worked this time

ROCKFORD (WREX) - Portillo's opens in Rockford in three weeks.  It's been a long time coming.

The popular Chicago hot dog chain almost opened a restaurant in Rockford years ago.  Plans for that one fell through.  As 13 News found out, this Portillo's restaurant almost did, too.

"Let's see, Sycamore is...S," said Ken Weber as he plugged the town into his GPS unit.

Every two weeks, Ken and Judy leave their Machesney Park home and head to the closest Portillo's.

"Who in their right mind drives 35 miles for hot dogs?  We do," exclaimed Judy.

The Webers go way back with Portillo's.  Back to 1963 when Dick Portillo opened his first hot dog stand in Villa Park.

"I would've been 16-years-old," said Ken, who at the time worked for a carpet company.  "I would bring the lunch back to the shop; I was a gopher."

Ken's grunt work turned into a labor of love, and it just so happened that the love of his life also came to him right around the same time.

"Ken introduced me to Porillo's," Judy said.  "I'm not a big hot dog person, but I love the beef."

So the love stories began. Ken and Judy married, and they always remained faithful to Portillo's.

"Our son and daughter-in-law had their wedding rehearsal dinner at the Portillo's in Downers Grove," Judy said.  "They're as hooked as we are!"

The couple's affinity for the restaurant will put them at the Rockford Portillo's grand opening.  Dick Portillo personally invited them to join him.

It's a grand opening that is 14 years in the making.  Portillo tried to open a restaurant in Rockford in 2001, but it did not pan out.

Pankaj Mahajan is the man who sealed the deal to bring Portillo's to Rockford for the First Midwest Group last year.

It was his job to make sure history did not repeat itself.  

"They had a site plan worked out," Mahajan said.  "It was at the northwest corner of Mulford and State streets.  Then 9-11 happened and everything kind of pulled back and the financing disappeared."

The land Portillo wanted to build his restaurant on was eventually sold.  There is a Vitamin Shoppe there today.

"He always said he had no interest in coming to Rockford after he lost the one deal," said Mahajan.  

13 News Anchor Sean Muserallo asked Dick Portillo if there was any truth to the rumors that have circulated for years.  Did he have a beef with Rockford because of that 2001 deal?

"No, no, no," Portillo said.  "I don't know where that came from, but that's not true.  Rockford has been nothing but cooperative and very cooperative in wanting us to get there."

There were petitions and persuasion, but Portillo never budged until last summer, when he handed over part of his business to a private equity firm out of Boston.

First Midwest said it was that business agreement that paved the way for talks to begin on the new deal.  The developer and Portillo's and its partners got to work on finding a location.

"The first location that they wanted to be on was at the southeast corner of Mulford and State, which was a Chinese restaurant, so we bought it and tore it down specifically for Portillo's," said Mahajan..

But Mahajan said there was not enough parking and getting more space from the property owner next door would cost a fortune.  Option No. 1 was out.

The second option was an office building First Midwest bought nearby the now vacant lot that was a Chinese restaurant, but again, parking space and money were an issue.

"When they presented us a financial deal on that property, we were going to make more money doing Aldi," said Mahajan, referring to Portillo's, Inc.  "So we told them sorry, we want to do the Aldi Store.  So they said OK, we won't bother you anymore, we'll go somewhere else."

So First Midwest and Portillo's went their separate ways.  Portillo's went to the Target shopping center, but found the time to work out an agreement was too long for them to wait.  First Midwest did not get approved to put the Aldi at Mulford and State.

So, the two parties came back together to give it one more shot.

Portillo made it clear he was not budging on the Mulford and State location, according to Mahajan.

"He didn't want to go anywhere else," said Mahajan.  "We offered him free land in front of Meijers and he said no."

So after a quick two month approval at Rockford City Hall, Dick Portillo ended up on the corner of Mulford and State, 100 feet from where he originally wanted his restaurant to go in 2001.

"Getting a good location, a great location, is one of the toughest parts of opening a Portillo's," Portillo said.

The Rockford Portillo's is expected to gross $9 to $11 million in sales.

It will generate tax revenues for the city to the tune of $150,000 a year, said Mahajan, who said the money will stay in the special tax district is going in along State Street.

But for the Webers and other faithful Portillo's followers, taxes and sales revenues don't add up.  They're just glad that starting at 10:30 a.m. on June 9, when the Rockford Portillo's opens, they won't have to drive far anymore to get their Portillo's fix.

The man behind the website to "Bring Portillo's to Rockford," was also personally invited to the grand opening by Portillo.  Doug Cohen, a web designer, will get a reserved parking space on opening day.  Just for one day.

It will come in handy because First Midwest is predicting officers will have to direct traffic for the first few months the restaurant opens.

As for Mahajan, now that the 10 year battle to bring Portillo's to Rockford is over for him, he's already working on the next big thing.

He said he calls Trader Joe's corporate office once a month, just to check in, and let them know he's interested in working out a deal to bring the store to Rockford.

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