Portillo’s is a niche fast food restaurant that for decades was just in Chicagoland. As recently as 2014, the chain only had 38 restaurants making them elusive and memorable. People would go out of their way to have one of their Chicago hot dogs or famous roast beef sandwiches, and there was always a buzz of activity in the dining area.
Then things changed. I was recently in a Portillo’s and my brother and I commented on how empty it was during the Friday lunch hour. Maybe it’s because in the last decade, Portillo’s has doubled its presence, now with 84 stores in 10 states. And that is only the beginning. Today, they have plans to expand to 920 stores, downsize their footprints, open some drive-through-only locations, and reduce staffing.
The food is still good but there is no longer anything special about the place. Yet, as part of their redesign, there is now an entire section of Portillo’s “merch.” It seems wildly out of place.
Yes, people (me included) may have coveted and proudly displayed Portillo’s-branded items when it was a badge of honor to be near one but already it is becoming generic. Would you want to buy any merchandise from Tropical Smoothie Café or Five Guys burgers? That is how much Portillo’s wants to grow.
You can be big, or you can be special. If you want a group of devotees to pay to promote your brand, becoming pervasive isn’t the way to go.