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Brown's president builds campaign to combat crime
Daily Herald Staff Report
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Published: 8/4/2009 5:03 PM | Updated: 8/4/2009 10:07 PM

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Originally published Jan. 11, 1994

One year after the murders of two franchise holders and five of their employees at Brown's Chicken & Pasta in Palatine, Brown's President Frank Portillo talked with Daily Herald Projects Editor Diane Dungey about his efforts to organize small businesses into a lobbying force on crime related issues. Portillo, whose company is based in Oak Brook, has joined forces with the Chicago Crime Commission and is urging small businesses to become associate members of the commission,

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Q. What extra security measures have you made at your restaurants? Have you had any employees say they won't work at closing or any parents say their kids can't work?

A. No, that hasn't happened. We've really gone over security measures. Right after that (the murders), we made a specific call to police departments. We asked police to swing through at closing. We've got excellent cooperation from police.

The awareness level of owners and employees is high.

Palatine, since it opened in 1974, had only had two break-ins. We've had cameras in some inner-city stores. Now, we're recommending franchisees put in cameras and we've got them in just about every company store. It's expensive. It costs $1,596 a year to have a camera.

That's a crime tax. We should be able to do business in our communities without that.

Q. What did the murders cost your company?

A. Gross sales were down double-digit percents in January, February and March. It cost me over $1 million. That's the net loss. It put me in the hole.

I'm angry for a lot of reasons. I know how hard my franchisees work. I know how hard my employees work. I know how hard I work.

That some lowlife who doesn't want to work could do this. - It's going to take a long time to pay it back.

We're doing pretty good, businesswise. In December, our catering business went through the roof.

It was the best catering in years. Sales were up 15 percent in December companywide. Rallying around is the word I want to use.

We're not just sitting and saying, "Woe is me."

We are going to be reopening in the Palatine area. We're looking for shopping center locations.

Q. Since the murders, you've spoken out against crime. Where are you focusing your efforts?

A. There's no doubt crime is out of control. One of the things a citizen and a small-business man and even a legislator has got to ask is "What's the most important thing government does?" I really believe government's main responsibility is you've got to feel safe.

Now, a violent crime happens to this guy, and he, as an individual, has no voice. Then it happens to this guy. But they have no means to get together. When a tragedy comes to a small-business person, it can be emotionally and financially devastating.

We small people have to get together. If I get a vehicle to communicate to small businesses, we could do this. I want to get a network going, and we'll have the backing of the (Chicago) Crime Commission.

Q. How are you getting the word out to small businesses?

A. We sent out mailers, but we only got a few back. Now, I'm doing a lot of speaking to business groups.

Everyone wants to talk about the tragedy. Once I go through my talk and they know what I'm talking about, they say, "Hey, this is a good idea. This is a way to communicate."

We've got about 50 associate members now, but three months ago, we didn't have any.

If I've got to talk to 10,000 people personally, I'll talk to 10,000 people personally. But I've got to get 10,000 people, out of 186,000 small businesses in Illinois.

Q. What are we doing wrong to fight crime? What do you want to change?

A. I don't want to pass laws. I just want to enforce the ones we have. When a bad guy commits a crime with a gun, he's got to be thrown in jail. If he gets put in four years, he's a hero in his neighborhood. It's like a badge. If you throw him in for 20 years, his status is gone. His youth is gone.

And when you sentence him, that's the sentence he should serve. We're so proud of ourselves for saying if he's a third-time offender, he'll spend 85 percent of his sentence in jail. I can't believe that.

We don't know the meaning of swift punishment in this country. When was the last, maximum security prison built in Illinois? Seventy years ago. Look at all the other public buildings that have been built.

What kind of society do we live in if one-half of 1 percent of people can put the other 99 1/2 percent in fear and terror?

My goal is by next year this time, every citizen in Illinois is going to know who his or her state senator is, who the state representatives are and how they vote on issues of crime.

Q. What made you decide to get involved in this crime-fighting campaign?

A. I wish I would have had the brains and foresight when I saw these little crimes that weren't affecting me, that I had the foresight to do something. I wish I had done that before the Palatine tragedy.

I'm really angry. I want to change the system. If I don't do it, I'd have problems living with myself. There is no emotional feeling like being with the moms and dads and sisters and brothers - I don't think the survivors of the victims will ever be the same again. And that's so wrong.

Mrs. (Diane) Clayton, (mother of Brown's victim Marcus Nellsen), is the one who kind of triggered me to do this. She looked up at me and said, "How could they do this to my son? How could they be so mean?"

Q. How hard will it be to mobilize others to join with you?

A. I remember when I was a kid, watching "Sands of Iwo Jima" and other war movies. We're at war. We're at war with these bad guys. If you get American people mad, there's no greater power. Unfortunately, it takes a little while to get them going.

If we get everyone doing a little bit, we'll win the war. If it's just Frank Portillo and Brown's Chicken, they'll blow us away.

Q. Are you worried your efforts will remind people of the Palatine tragedy?

A. One franchisee told me it would remind people and hurt business. I've got faith in human nature, that my customers see we had this tragedy, and as CEO I could try to do the best I can to make Illinois the safest state in the union, my customers will say, at least he's trying to make something good come out of something so tragic.