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Portillo’s Suburban Chicago Warehouse Workers Become Chain’s First to Unionize

Forklift workers and employees that make and pack Italian beef gravy have joined the Ironworkers Union

A Portillo’s Chicago-style hot dog on a wrapper with a fountain drink on a red checkered tablecloth.
Portillo’s warehouse workers have unionized.
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Employees at a Portillo’s warehouse in suburban Addison have won their union vote. And while none of the chain’s restaurants are unionized, the victory marks the first time workers at any one of Portillo’s nearly 80 facilities — restaurants or production venues — have successfully organized.

Workers picked the Ironworkers Union to represent the 49 warehouse employees that include cleaners and forklift operators. The National Labor Relations Board election took place on Thursday, April 13 with 28 voting in favor of joining the union and 20 opposing. These workers also pack and ship orders; Portillo’s has a large business shipping Italian beef kits across the country; they’ve even partnered with Lou Malnati’s on a pizza collaboration.

Portillo’s, founded in 1963 by Dick Portillo in suburban Villa Park, has grown thanks to a cult following and hedge fund investors which purchased the then 18-location chain in 2014 for $74.4 million. The shops are mostly in Chicago’s suburbs. The kids in those small towns grew up and moved to the big city. Those newish residents caused much hoopla when Portillo’s recently opened city locations in Avondale and South Loop. The drive-thru in River North is an operation to behold. The chain’s Italian beef and hot dogs present Chicago street foods in a comfortable chain restaurant setting. The chocolate cake, made with sour cream, even inspired the luscious version that appeared on FX’s The Bear.

The public-traded company sent in a statement to Eater on Thursday night:

With these results, we appreciate everyone’s participation in the election — and we will work through the next steps in the NLRB process and look forward to continuing to work with all of our Team Members. We are proud of the competitive pay, career growth, development opportunities, and outstanding benefits — including health insurance, paid time off, a wellness program, learning resources, meal benefits, and reward and recognition programs — that we provide for our team members.

The Oak Brook-based company plans on opening 600 locations within the next 25 years across the country. There are about 80 right now including states outside Illinois like Arizona, Florida, and Michigan. A new restaurant debuted this year in Dallas with long lines and others locations are on their way elsewhere.

Workers in Addison began their organizing effort in June 2021 when they approached Arise Chicago, a worker’s rights group that’s taken an increased interest in pushing to unionize restaurant and food workers over the last few years including supporting those at the United Center and at the El Milagro tortilla plant. The pandemic set off a wave of organizing with the philosophy that essential workers deserve essential rights as they faced unprecedented working conditions.

Arise says its effort began when workers complained about low wages, low staffing, and unsafe working conditions during the pandemic. That campaign led to a week-long strike in 2021.

As with most companies, union organizers claim management launched anti-union campaigns as was the case with Wisconsin-based Colectivo Coffee which didn’t want to pay workers more or offer them benefits. Cafe workers allied with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. It’s an unorthodox match, but the food and restaurant world doesn’t have many dedicated unions, as the Ironworkers grow their ranks with Portillo’s warehouse workers.

Perhaps the warehouse workers could encourage those at other Portillo’s to organize in the same manner labor swept Starbucks after a Buffalo, New York coffee shop became the chain’s first to organize at the end of 2021.

“Despite the threats and intimidation workers have faced from Portillo’s management, they were able to persevere and win their union election,” a statement from the Ironworkers Union reads.