Now that the Chicago Cubs have secured a spring-training home in Mesa well into the future, the East Valley will soon welcome to the area the first of possibly many in a long line of Windy City favorites: Portillo’s Hot Dogs.
Portillo’s opened its first Arizona location late last month in North Scottsdale, and if early returns – like lines 100 guests deep, and a jam-packed weekday lunch rush — are any indication, the Chicago staple’s next restaurant has a promising future.
The site of Arizona restaurant No. 2: On Rio Salado Parkway at Tempe Marketplace – just a long homerun west of where the Cubs’ new Riverview spring training facility is currently under construction.
The new 96-acre spring training complex near Dobson Road and Rio Salado in Mesa will open for the 2014 Cactus League season; Portillo’s will open the Tempe site sooner – likely by this summer.
Dick Portillo was born and raised in Chicago and for a time lived in the government-subsidized Mother Frances Cabrini row houses that would later become a part of the once-infamous Chicago housing project known as Cabrini-Green.
After graduating high school in 1957 and serving a tour with the U.S. Marine Corps, Portillo opened a hot dog stand called “The Dog House,” a 6-foot-by-12-foot trailer, in the Chicago suburb of Villa Park in 1963.
With that $1,100 investment, Portillo started what has become the largest privately held restaurant chain in the Midwest, according to the company, with more than 4,000 employees and 50 locations in four states – Illinois, Indiana, California and now Arizona.
In addition to the Portillo’s Hot Dogs brand, the company also operates three other restaurant concepts and two shopping plazas. In April 2013, Portillo’s celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Both the Cubs’ new complex and the Portillo’s expansion to Arizona demonstrate the strong ties between Chicagoland and the Valley.
“I’ve heard it called Chicago’s farthest Western suburb,” Portillo’s spokesperson Patty Sullivan said.
Part of that reputation comes from the Cubs’ longtime use of facilities in Mesa for its spring training slate. Cactus League’s data through 2011 show that the Cubs hold 15 of the top 20 spots for single-game attendance. The Cubs also hold four of the top five season attendance records and eight of the top 10 season average attendance records.
But Portillo’s decision to expand to Arizona was based on factors well beyond the Cubs deal with the city of Mesa. The restaurant’s negotiations were under way before the Cubs had reached an agreement with the city, according to Sullivan, and fans of the restaurant’s signature Chicago-style hot dogs, Italian beef, and barbeque ribs had been demanding an Arizona location for quite a long time.
“Over the years, we’ve received emails, letters and phone calls” from Chicago transplants in Arizona, Sullivan said. “‘Please come to our state’ is one of the top subjects.”
And there are many Illinoisans in Arizona to make that request. According to data from the 2000 census, aside from four Midwestern states that border Illinois, only California and Florida outranked the Grand Canyon State in the number of residents who were born in Illinois.
An analysis of IRS statistics from 2005 through 2010 showed Illinois ranked in the top three states for people migrating to Arizona from 2005-2007 and among the top five states from 2008-2010.
Over those six years, an average of 12,785 Illinoisans moved to Arizona annually, more than half of them to Maricopa County, bringing total adjusted gross incomes of more than $260.5 million each year, the IRS data suggest.
Fans of the restaurant also spoke with their wallets, Sullivan said. The store ships products to all 50 states, and 10 percent of its online orders come from Arizona.
The Portillo family is the sole owner of the chain and has no franchisees, no partners and no investors, according to Sullivan. She said the company had been interested in a Chandler location, but would have had to lease the property; Portillo prefers to own the property his restaurants are built on.
The Tempe site, at the corner of McClintock Drive and Rio Salado, does have the allure of being near the Cubs future spring home, dubbed Wrigleyville West. The facility will be open in time for next year’s preseason.
In addition to a new stadium with 15,000 seats – 2,500 more than the current Cubs facility at Hohokam Stadium – and practice fields on the west side, the complex will feature an expanded Riverview Park with paths, playgrounds, interactive water features and a fishable lake on the east side, according to Scot Rigby, Mesa Gateway senior project manager with the City of Mesa.
“Spring training is six weeks,” Rigby said. “The challenge is what’s the continual draw throughout the year?”
Additional city fields on the west side and soccer fields that double as public parking when the Cubs are in town will host soccer tournaments during the parts of the year when the Cubs and their out-of-state fans aren’t here, drawing visitors from throughout the Southwest, Rigby said.
Guests to the Cubs’ stadium will walk up what Rigby called a paseo, a wide path or road that will feature retail shops and restaurants. The Cubs organization is taking the lead on signing “iconic” Chicagoland businesses for the retail space, Rigby said. The ball club is also working with the city to attract larger tenants, such as one or two hotels, to anchor the retail areas.
Portillo’s isn’t part of the Wrigleyville West development. But it isn’t far away, either, and could spur others Illinois brands to jump on board.
Getting anchors locked in by the start of spring training 2014 will help spur interest in the other retail space in the complex, Rigby said.
Rigby awaits what he calls “the mall syndrome” to die down.
“They don’t want to be the first,” Rigby said. “They want to see the stadium open up and get going and some anchors come in.”