What restaurant would you like to see next come to town?
CHAMPAIGN — It's official: Portillo's is coming to Champaign, sometime in the spring.
The popular restaurant hopes to begin construction in the next couple weeks, with the goal of opening in late April or early May.
It will be located at 2306 N. Prospect Ave., the former home of HomeTown Buffet.
"We've already got our permits," Portillo's CEO Keith Kinsey said. "We're ready to go in Champaign."
The announcement comes less than a week after Champaign issued Portillo's a building permit for a building with two drive-thru lanes, Champaign building-safety supervisor Larry Happ said, and months after Portillo's first indicated it may be coming to Champaign.
In April, Portillo's said it was considering a Champaign location. In July, it posted on Craigslist that it was looking for managers. And in August, it submitted a building permit to the city.
The Champaign location will seat more than 200 guests; have a standard Portillo's menu, which includes hot dogs, Italian beef, hamburgers and chocolate cake; and have a 1950s diner theme, with decor from the decommissioned Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul.
Portillo's plans to hire anywhere from 175 to 200 employees to start, and some managers have already been hired and are being trained in Chicago, Kinsey said.
Portillo's was founded in 1963 in the Chicago suburb of Villa Park and has been expanding more quickly since founder Dick Portillo sold the business in 2014 to Berkshire Partners. Portillo's now has 46 locations, most in the Chicago area and a handful in Arizona, California, Florida, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Portillo's announced in April that it was expanding to Normal, but that location is not expected to open until August or September, making the Champaign store Portillo's first expansion in downstate Illinois.
Kinsey said it makes sense to expand to Champaign for an obvious reason: Many University of Illinois students and staff come from the Chicago area and remember it fondly. About 45 percent of University of Illinois students and staff come from Chicago and its collar counties, according to UI's enrollment statistics.
"When you think about all the kids that come from Chicago, or that are working at the university and have connections back to Chicago, and how many people send food to Champaign and the surrounding areas, there's a lot of brand awareness," Kinsey said.
Champaign-Urbana residents will even drive up to Portillo's locations in the south suburbs of Chicago, pick up catering, and bring it back, Kinsey said.
"There's a lot of Chicago snowbirds there," he said.
Champaign will also serve as a launchpad for more expansion in the region, Kinsey said, mentioning Peoria, Moline and Indianapolis as possible locations.
"Those are places we're looking at. Nothing solid yet," he said. "From a development perspective of people and team and operations, let's just migrate our way down, make that circle bigger. It's a very efficient way to build off Chicagoland."
Kinsey expects the Champaign location to do well and said the average annual revenue for a Portillo's restaurant is about $7 million to $8 million.
A University of Illinois grad himself, Kinsey said it will be nice to get back to Champaign.
"It's nice to go places you really know and got some memories from," he said, adding that perhaps Portillo's will bring in some prospective athletes. "We're going to help Lovie (Smith) get recruiting down in Champaign."