It proves its strength
Most people agree that COVID, after all, has done one sure thing for restaurants: it has polarized winners and losers. It covers the whole spectrum in terms of cleaning, operations and of course employee care. Waite says Portillo has a chance to stand behind company values and show his moves when the chips are down. It provided paid leave, PPE and created a “Wellness Team” to advise and monitor employees’ mental health. In addition, Portillo gave 100 percent meal discounts and gift cards throughout the crisis and funded bonuses for field managers. Portillo introduced a formal meal plan so workers could take food home to their families. If someone wanted to take time off for personal reasons, Portillo allowed them to take time off and still paid benefits and offered gift cards for free meals. He later created a fund called “The Heart of Portillo Foundation” to help workers who have faced setbacks. Through this, the company raised more than $400,000 in 18 months and awarded nearly 40 grants of nearly $100,000.
Entering the depths of 2020 and the so-called “labor shortage” is when Portillo will conduct the “total rewards survey” he referred to earlier. It was a simple question: What do you want from a brand in a regulated world?
The answer was expressed throughout the many benefits Portillo created, with a strong focus on flexibility, development and recognition. “It showed that we’re not just putting our purpose and values on the wall, we’re actually living them,” says Waite. “And an additional data point that shows it, we’ve improved our engagement scores year over year, where Gallup said there was a year-over-year decline across the board, across the board.”
Why Portillo’s opened its cash register for employees isn’t entirely about recruitment and retention. Waite says that if a brand wants to deliver customer service in a way that differentiates it, especially in the face of inflation, employees need to like what they do and where they do it. Asking a stressed and unhappy employee to be kind to someone walking in or out of the driveway is a difficult proposition. It sounds simple in nature, but the execution is far from it. Portillo’s is working on ways to create efficiencies in the store so employees can let go of mundane tasks and focus on what makes the brand different.
It’s grainy, like the catering boxes that used to require workers to tape them up. The supplier and employee collaborated to develop a new “pop and lock” product where the box snaps into place. “It sounds crazy, but it saves a lot of labor hours,” says Osanloo. It used to be that someone would spend three to four hours every morning at Portillo’s.
Catering breads have also started to be cut in advance. It used to be sliced and packaged at home. Maxwell Street Polish Sausages – the brand’s offering dating back more than 75 years – were also used to be seen and cut by hand by staff. The ends of the sausage were discarded. They also now come pre-cut and pre-cut. Portillo was also transferred to the red onion machine, cut by the supplier and vacuum sealed in bags.
The proof is in the pudding
Returning to the idea of developing soft skills and preparing employees for future success, Portillo holds “key interest” days where team members can raise their hands and ask about their future. “What we’ve learned through our Ignite program is when people graduate and they promote energy in the restaurant, you can feel it,” Waite said. “Our recent engagement survey shows that graduates of our Ignite program have a higher level of engagement and then bring that back to the restaurant. When you visit a restaurant and say hello, tell them what’s going on, they’ll tell you that Sarah is working on becoming the next assistant general manager. It’s in the next Ignite wave. It cultivates a culture of continuous development and continuous improvement.” This creates a tribal-like culture that appeals to younger generations, Waite adds. Examples of success in the store are visible and visible peers. He says the concept of having a best friend at work consistently shows up in surveys as a reason why people choose Portillo’s and why they stay.
Osanloo says this is no accident. Portillo’s recruitment for “immutable features”. Are they people who aspire to be great? Do they treat people like extended family at work? Do they like to be in front of others and have fun?
Waite says Portillo trains GMs and assistant GMs on “what a great Portillo’s team member looks like.” And what behavioral questions you can ask to find that employee.
“We’re not really looking for what’s on the resume, but we’re looking for who the person is and what they’re going to bring to our lives in terms of our purpose and our values,” he says. “Through our interview guide and training, we ask questions like how do you create or have you created lifelong memories for others? Tell us how you bring fun to work or your soccer team? We do a lot of first time work. This is for first-timers and people with no work experience. So tell us how you create fun on your soccer team. We’ll line them up again and see how they interact with our team members.”
“… I think that’s one of the key pieces that allows us to have retention,” Waite adds. “Because we’re not just looking for someone who can make a great beef sandwich.” The broad vision is to hire a team with a similar goal. More than 56 percent of the company’s hourly employees are BIPOC, which is a reflection of something that will have an impact as the brand grows. Portillo hires people who reflect the communities, so the stores that are open feel like a local brand to customers and employees.
Osanloo says the company understands the challenge at hand, which is why Portillo is relentless in its culture-based approach. Consumers have become more demanding since COVID. Given the myriad of roles and channels that brands operate from curbside to delivery, you could argue that working in a restaurant is more challenging than ever. “There are just other career paths now where the work can be physically demanding but emotionally easier,” he said. “You don’t deal with customers. And even if it’s monotonous or boring, it’s easier in some ways. We have lost people because of this.”
“But I think if there’s a secret sauce,” Osanloo continues, “it goes back to the culture we’re trying to create and the values we live by. We are taking action against them.”
“This is an exciting time for Portillo,” adds Waite. “Our team members showed such endurance during the pandemic. We continue to open new restaurants in Texas, Florida, Arizona, Chicago, and it’s exciting to see the energy and desire to grow. Our team members grow with Portillo and even involve their friends and family.