Back in the ‘40s & ’50s there were no “chain” restaurants, no “golden arches”, and no national “fried chicken” franchises. Back then if you wanted great fried chicken, you went to a small, storefront “mom & pop” operated restaurants. Many of these family run businesses were on Chicago’s South Side and had colorful names like Baby Doll’s, Mama’s, Big Bub’s and the famous Ella Mae & Charlie’s on South Shore Drive.

Many of these restaurants bought their chickens from Brown’s Poultry Store, which John and Belva Brown supplied from their own countryside chicken farm. The restaurant owners would "guesstimate" how many chickens they would need for the next two days and call Brown's Poultry Store. Mr. Brown would then go process the chickens and deliver them in his old truck.

Mr. Brown enjoyed talking with his customers. They’d boast how theirs was the “best fried chicken on the whole South Side”. And they shared the secrets of their recipes.

The chicken Mr. Brown liked best came from a Chicago neighborhood tradition with roots in rural Mississippi. It had a unique buttermilk batter and was cooked in cottonseed oil, not shortening. As local ingredients and cooking customs were incorporated, an unusual style of chicken evolved… crispy on the outside, moist and flavorful on the inside… with a flavor found only in Chicago.

In 1949, large chicken-growing conglomerates began driving local growers like the Brown's out of business. Mr. Brown thought about giving up chickens and starting a well-digging business. Mrs. Brown had another idea.

“John”, she said, “you’ve been learning how to cook chicken for nearly 10 years, and I think people would like the taste of your favorite crispy, buttermilk-batter recipe!”

So in 1949 the Brown's bought a small trailer, parked it in front of their farm and pounded a sign into the ground saying, “FRIED CHICKEN”.

It was an instant success. For those old enough to remember, it was a Sunday treat for Mom and Dad to put the kids in the car and go for a drive that included a stop at Brown’s Chicken Stand. Mr. Brown stacked army surplus blankets next to the stand, so folks would order their chicken, grab a blanket and go have a picnic under a tree in the Brown’s farmyard.

Business was great… until the zoning board showed up! It seems the Brown’s farm wasn’t zoned for a restaurant. The chicken stand was padlocked and the Brown’s lost everything, except for their unique recipe for Chicago-style crispy chicken.

In the early part of the 1950s, Mr. Brown found a location zoned for restaurants at 80th and Harlem in Bridgeview with an owner willing to sell for no money down. They moved the old trailer to the site out of which Mrs. Brown began selling chicken. Local authorities said the trailer could only be temporary and Mr. Brown would have to build a permanent restaurant building if he wanted to stay in business. A fishing buddy of Mr. Brown’s offered the services of his son, Frank Portillo, Jr., to draw up a blueprint needed to obtain a building permit. A skilled draftsman with the Northern Illinois Gas Company, the young Portillo was paid a delicious sum of a 12-piece Brown’s chicken dinner for his services!

The building was constructed and throughout the 1950’s, the restaurant had two additions put on to handle the growing business which consistently made it the highest volume chicken restaurant in Chicago! Frank drew up the plans for the additions so it didn’t escape his notice that Mr. Brown was in a very successful business. Mr. Brown was about thirty years older than Frank. Being older and wiser he was impressed with Frank’s ambition. With entrepreneurial aspirations of his own, Frank wanted to be his own boss and saw a ground floor opportunity in Brown’s. Or a basement floor opportunity, as it were.

Mr. Brown and Frank soon became partners. They worked out a deal with Frank that would put him into his own Brown’s Chicken restaurant. Mr. Brown wanted to make sure Frank’s future restaurant didn’t impact his Bridgeview Brown’s so he required Frank’s store be put out in the boon docks. Frank quit his job with the gas company where he would leave behind a guaranteed weekly paycheck, sold the home his wife Joan dearly loved, all the furniture, and his car. He bought an old station wagon and bought an old building with a basement. Frank and Joan moved out to Elmhurst into the building’s basement where they made their home below what would be their very own Brown’s Chicken restaurant. It was in this basement home that Frank’s daughter, Toni, who is now Brown’s company president was born.

Frank found out quickly that the restaurant business wasn’t so simple. He thought he could just open up a store like Mr. Brown did and the people would line up. It didn’t happen that way. Frank was on the brink of shattered dreams. Business was so bad he almost went broke. But with persistence and the will to succeed he knew he needed to try everything. Frequently Frank and Joan, with their children in the station wagon went house to house passing out FREE CHICKEN DINNERS hand written on index cards. They would then rush back to the restaurant to prepare for the dinner rush. It took them two long years to make their Brown’s profitable. It was the best learning experience they had. Frank’s dream was to open seven Brown’s restaurants. He achieved that goal by 1963 and with great success under his belt he semi retired by the age of 30. That only lasted for two years. In the early 60s franchising was the new buzz word. In December of 1964 Frank and Mr. Brown formed Brown & Portillo, Inc and began franchising new Brown’s Chicken restaurants.

After together franchising and opening around twenty-five Brown’s restaurants, Mr. Brown told Frank that he would like to spend his winters in Florida and semi retire. The future growth of Brown’s was left to Frank but with on-going mentoring coming from Mr. Brown. Frank and Mr. Brown had a great relationship until Mr. Brown died on December 30th, 1992. They had a deep respect for each other. Frank and Joan would be forever grateful for the opportunity Mr. Brown offered them.

Through the 70s and 80s Frank leading his growing team would open 175 Brown’s. Not bad for a guy that grew up in the tough, Chicago public housing projects and only had a High School education.

It’s been said the future is not ours to predict. After the horrific Palatine tragedy in January, 1993 Brown’s experienced a 30-40% drop in business. Customers were fearful and stayed away from Brown’s Chicken restaurants in droves. Banks were not kind to Brown’s. They told Frank that there was no way Brown’s could survive that horrible Palatine tragedy. Stores were closed because they couldn’t get financing. Banks sold company real estate at auction. Competitors used aggressive, predatory discounting tactics because they knew Brown’s Chicken was in trouble. To counter competition, a new lease on growth was found in the popularity of pasta. It was introduced in the stores with great success. Brown’s Chicken soon became Brown’s Chicken & Pasta. It was enough to put Brown’s back on the map. Even Fortune magazine took note and wrote a complimentary article on Brown’s remarkable comeback.

Most recently Brown’s targeted the terrific opportunity they saw in the lunch market by offering Chicago-style made-to-order sandwiches. Introducing a new product is not particularly easy being a one product business for over 40 years. The Fortune Magazine wrote that any other man would have thrown in the towel, but not Frank Portillo. Today privately owned, Brown’s is the second largest chain in the Midwest selling Chicago style sandwiches.

 


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