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Closing of Key Wester in Naperville a rare blemish on Portillo's
By Robert Sanchez | Daily Herald Staff

With his first hot dog stand as a backdrop, Dick Portillo discusses the closing of his Key Wester restaurant in Naperville this week.

 

Daniel White | Staff Photographer

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Published: 9/9/2010 12:00 AM

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The Portillo empire

Portillo's - 32 in the suburbs, 2 in California

Barnelli's - 8 in suburbs, 1 in Chicago, 1 in Merrillville, Ind.

Honey-Jam Cafe - 2, in Batavia and Downers Grove

Luigi's House - 1 in Naperville

Key Wester - Closed Tuesday in Naperville

Source: Portillo's

Amid the family photographs in his Oak Brook office, Dick Portillo keeps a framed image of the government-subsidized housing project where he lived as a child.

For the owner of the Portillo Restaurant Group, the old picture of row houses along Mohawk Street in Chicago serves as a reminder of how far he has come.

In 1963, Portillo started selling hot dogs from a 6-by-12-foot trailer in Villa Park that didn't have a bathroom or running water.

He has since grown his business into a chain of restaurants with nearly 4,000 employees.

Portillo is still in expansion mode, opening two breakfast and lunch concept restaurants this year in Batavia and Downers Grove and building a shopping center in Bolingbrook.

It's the kind of success that makes the sudden closing this week of his Key Wester seafood restaurant in Naperville all the more surprising.

"To have to close the restaurant was the most difficult business decision that I've ever had to do in my 47 years in business," Portillo said Wednesday. "It broke my heart."

Portillo said he put his "heart and soul" into the Florida Keys-themed seafood restaurant, which opened in August 1996 at 1975 Glacier Park Blvd., just off Route 59.

Key Wester was one of several concepts that Portillo introduced outside the hot dog and burgers realm, including Barnelli's Pasta Bowl and Luigi's House in Aurora.

Portillo had a hand in designing the Key Wester, which included a bar called Hemingway's, stage entertainment and a decor that featured a replica of a sunken Spanish galleon. He gathered many of the artifacts inside the restaurant himself.

But in recent years, sales were dropping and costs were rising. And the 13,000-square-foot building was in need of "a tremendous amount of repairs."

Portillo said the economic downturn played a big role in many Key Wester customers seeking other options. In response, the restaurant changed its menu to include more affordable items.

But then fish prices started skyrocketing, especially after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

That added up to a "perfect storm" of factors that resulted in Portillo making the decision to close.

"It was a very emotional and difficult decision," he said. "I didn't take that decision lightly."

The Key Wester was closed on Tuesday. Roughly 60 full-time employees were told about the restaurant's fate during a pair of meetings that day. They were given the opportunity to apply for other positions within the Portillo Restaurant Group.

"Of course, we're not going to be able to take most of them," Portillo said. "But we will be able to take some of them."

As for what happens to the property, that is yet to be determined.

Even as he closes the door on the Key Wester concept, Portillo is expanding his restaurant empire.

His latest concept, Honey-Jam Café, debuted this year in Batavia and Downers Grove.

The restaurants serve breakfast and lunch. A third Honey-Jam Café is set to open in a shopping center Portillo is constructing next to his Bolingbrook Portillo's.

When asked if he ever thought he would build a shopping center, Portillo said: "I never thought I would have a building with running water and a bathroom either."