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Nation's Restaurant News 2023 Power List Karina Marquez Portillo's
When Portillo’s general manager Karina Marquez began working at the company in 2009 as a crew member on the broiler station, she did not speak a word of English after immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico years earlier.

Portillo’s general manager Karina Marquez went from crew member to running one of the largest locations in the U.S.

She was chosen to lead Portillo’s first store in Texas, which has since become one of the company’s most profitable

Above every great leader is another leader who recognized their potential and helped pull them up the ladder of success.

When Portillo’s general manager Karina Marquez began working at the company in 2009 as a crew member on the broiler station, she did not speak a word of English after immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico years earlier. Despite her natural skill at her initial job, she was not thinking of her future career at the company.

But Marquez said that when she met Mike Roman, vice president of field operations at the company, he helped her believe that she could do more than just be a typical store employee. “I feel like at one point in our lives, we all need a cheerleader that believes in you and can push you,” Marquez said.

She soon was promoted to shift leader, then assistant general manager, and then general manager of a store at the corner of Addison St. and Kimball Ave. in Chicago, where she ran the store as a bilingual leader from May 2021 to July 2022. That store consistently performed at the top of Portillo’s metrics, including speed of service and overall satisfaction.

In 2022, when Portillo’s announced that the Chicago-based hot dog and Italian beef chain would be expanding to Texas for the first time, company leaders knew they needed a “rockstar GM” to lead the first Texas Portillo’s store, which would be at The Colony, a suburb of Dallas. Marquez seemed like a natural fit.

The Colony location just opened in January and already has become one of the largest and most profitable stores in the Portillo’s portfolio.

“I think Karina has always been ready for the next opportunity because of her work ethic and learning agility,” Roman said. “She has an unbelievable desire for perfection, so when I think about her situation, she's always prepared for the next role. She opened [the Addison and Kimball location] as assistant GM during COVID, which was obviously a very challenging time for everyone, and she had to take on a lot of responsibilities that assistant GMs normally don’t have to do, so she was prepared for that GM role pretty quickly.”

But even though helping to open her previous store location in Chicago gave Marquez the experience and confidence to run the new unit in The Colony, it has still been challenging.

“My store [in Chicago] was No. 1 for a whole year, and then coming here to Texas, it was really different,” Marquez said. “I had to lead differently especially because we hire a lot of external people. When you hire externals, some of them have done my job previously, so how do you get them to buy in? That was something I had to learn.”

Marquez’s leadership style at both locations is notable, Roman said, for how humble she is, and how willing she is to dig into the same work as her team without thinking she’s above getting her hands dirty.

“She's an extremely humble leader who truly puts everyone else in front of her, which actually resonates with her team and everyone else around her,” Roman said. “Even though she's had tremendous success, she always continues to humble herself and knows what she needs to improve on and build her team with.”

Marquez agreed with Roman’s assessment of her leadership style. In fact, she said, when she made the leap from crew member to assistant GM and GM, not much changed in her day-to-day work.

“I still sweep the line, I still jump in, I still do everything that I have to do,” Marquez said. “The only thing that changed was, you get to be the person that says ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You never lose yourself. You never forget where you came from. I don’t consider myself better than anyone else. I just feel like being good with people has gotten me to where I am today.”

This humble, down-to-earth attitude has helped Marquez’s stores have low employee turnover rates. Her Texas store has about 50% of the opening day crew of 150-160 employees, which is impressive for an industry that, as Marquez herself puts it, sometimes treats employees like a revolving door. And they need all the help they can get because the Texas location has to deal with much higher sales volume and traffic than the average Portillo’s.

“We already knew they were waiting for Portillo’s in Texas,” Marquez said. “The lines don’t stop and they have not stopped for two months, from the moment we open until the moment we close. We just try our best to focus on quality to get people to keep coming back.”

Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]

TAGS: Fast Casual
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