The ROI of Formalized Purpose and Values

The ROI of Formalized Purpose and Values
January 16, 2023 Susan Diepen

The ROI of Formalized Purpose and Values

John Isbell, VP, Learning & Development, Portillo's

John Isbell

VP of Training & Development, Portillo’s

Do you have a formal Purpose Statement and a set of Values, but nobody uses them? Are you a company that has never formalized your Purpose and/or Values? Do you have them but want to change them? Most importantly, do you wonder if the work you put into your Purpose and Values can bring a return on your investment? John Isbell helped his 60-year-old organization formalize its Purpose and Values, and in doing so, helped to galvanize the company even further and launch a successful IPO a few short years later.

Within the last few years, we decided to formalize Portillo’s Purpose and Values, then integrate them as the crux of our culture, and not just another initiative. This is how we achieved tangible results. I am going to share our process and how valuable it was for Portillo’s in so many ways.

The Process

When Michael Osanloo took over Portillo’s as CEO, he asked what our Purpose and Values were. Our company was founded in 1963 on the American dream. Dick Portillo, the founder, took his last $1,100 and sunk it into a hot dog stand. It became an iconic Chicago hot dog empire! Dick made things happen – he took what he believed and made it a beloved brand with high standards for the restaurants and their people. Those same standards are still reflected in our current culture, but there was a time when they’d slipped. It was time to redefine who we were as a brand, and get back to what Portillo’s was built on.

We needed first to come up with a definition of our culture. What is the culture of a hospitality company? It is a set of shared beliefs and values – the heartbeat of the company, that vibe of how people interact with guests, the reason people want to return to work every day. Organizational culture is defined plainly as: “How we do things around here.”

– Culture is unique to your organization.

– Culture determines your brand.

Culture always begins with a purpose.

The way you attract and retain your customers and team members is incredibly important. Portillo’s has some of the best team members in the restaurant industry. We get these great people because we have a good culture that people believe in and want to work for You only get that if you have a strong cultural base that people throughout the organization talk about regularly. Teams that most align with the organization’s culture consistently perform at a higher level. That’s just science.

Woman in Portillo's uniform smiling

Defining Purpose and Mission

Purpose describes why we exist. According to Collins and Porras: “An effective purpose reflects the importance people attach to the company’s work. It taps their idealistic motivations and gets at the deeper reasons for an organization’s existence beyond just making money.”

Of course, most companies want to make money! The key is to identify the underlying “why” that drives your organization. For example, with, their purpose is NOT to be the best e-tailing company. It IS: “To seek to be earth’s most guest-centric company for four primary guest sets: consumers, sellers, enterprises, and content creators.”

Defining Cultural Values

Values are the words and behaviors that define culture.

– They communicate the expectations we commit to living each day.

– They guide our relationships with guests, associates, vendors, partners, and the communities in which we live and work.

The Process

So how did we at Portillo’s go about defining our Purpose and Values?  We partnered with a third-party company, Gallup, in February 2019 and took a holistic approach. The process included:

  1. Gallup gathered comprehensive documents related to recruiting, hiring, training, development, and team performance.
  2. Gallup conducted 20 interviews and two focus groups with Executives and Team Members.
  3. Gallup visited 10 restaurants for in-person experiences.
  4. For wider feedback, we deployed a Heart of Portillo’s Team Member Survey to every team member, which was completed by 92.5% of team members.
  5. A diverse group of 40 team members gathered to view the survey results and begin writing our Purpose and Values.

All together, we had approximately 5,850 people give their input. Here’s what we came up with as our definition of the Heart of Portillo’s:

Portillo's Purpose and Values


At Portillo’s we relish the opportunity to create lifelong memories by igniting the senses with unrivaled food and experiences.


Family: We work together to make everyone feel at home, and we step up when someone needs help.

Greatness: We are obsessed with being the best and work hard to continuously improve. Our greatness is rooted in Quality, Service, Attitude and Cleanliness (QSAC).

Energy: We move with urgency and passion, while maintaining attention to detail.

FUN: We entertain our guests, we connect authentically, and we make each other smile.

The Roll-Out

To roll out our new initiative, we started by having a General Manager (GM) Summit. The GMs were the first to hear about it. We gave them materials and tools to help them introduce the concepts, including a Heart of Portillo’s Board that each restaurant could display in the back of the house.

We then did a road show where I accompanied Michael Portillo, Human Resources (HR) representatives, and our regional leaders to meet with every manager and shift leader. We communicated our new Statement of Purpose and Values and how to operationalize it.

Heart of Portillo's Board with instructions

As important as it is to provide materials for the rollout, having the opportunity to prove it matters. We were able to quickly put our Values to work, as the rollout happened a month before the COVID pandemic hit. We immediately implemented initiatives to help our team members through COVID, reflecting our Family Values:

  • Launched Hearth of Portillo’s Fund (employee assistance fund) to support our team members in need
  • Created a Concierge Wellness Team to support our team members
  • Purchased Individual Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and gear for team members
  • Gave team members paid health benefits at the pandemic’s peak
  • Extended on-shift employee meal discount to 100%
  • Launched development programs to help our team members grow their career opportunities
  • Added the following: Premium Holiday Pay, Shift Lead Bonuses, Franks a Lot Fund for employee recognition


From this initiative, we built relationships, developed people, inspired others, thought critically, communicated clearly, created accountability, and led change. And, we rolled this out with a team of only three people!

We were dedicated to do the right things for our people. Here’s how the Values played out in real time:

Portillo's employee in black vest smiling at camera


  • Raised over $800,000 for the Heart of Portillo’s team members
  • Launched personalized Concierge Wellness Program
  • Enhanced our suite of benefits to include LinkedIn Learning, Wellness, and Personal Time Off (PTO)


  • Added hourly shift leaders to management bonus pay-for-performance
  • Launched Leadership Program for personal and professional development
  • Cultivated local ownership and execution of activities increasing engagement


  • Designed annual General Manager Summit to Inspire, Educate, and Recognize
  • Established programs to celebrate memorable moments and milestones


  • Developed Franks a Lot Fund to reward and recognize teams and individuals
  • Created innovative friends and family referral incentive program
2 Portillo's employees smiling

The result is happier, more engaged team members. It was exciting to see people who had never felt like anyone had encouraged them before take on leadership roles as shift leads. Our teams are more engaged than ever. In fact, we were able to increase engagement in a year of national decline, including for employees in critical roles.

We were ranked nationwide by Forbes as the number one restaurant company in 2021 for best mid-sized employers. In 2022, we were named as a “Best Brand to Work For” by QSR magazine, and a Best in Biz Awards Silver Winner for both “Company of the Year” and “Best Place to Work.” And, we launched a successful Initial Public Offering (IPO) a little over a year after we rolled this out.

When you develop your Purpose and Values based on what your employees believe, and spend time breathing life into them, some pretty amazing, meaningful, and profitable things can happen.