Portillo’s Hot Dogs’ ban on bikes in their drive-throughs doesn’t cut the mustard

When I stopped by one of their restaurants after the dining room had closed, they wouldn't serve me at the drive-through. Photo: John Greenfield
When I stopped by one of their restaurants after the dining room had closed, they wouldn't serve me at the drive-through. Photo: John Greenfield

I realize that writing a Streetsblog Chicago post inspired by an annoying thing that recently happened to me on my bicycle is something of a “think locally, act globally” situation. But responses on social media suggest this kind of thing is a pretty common experience for folks who ride bikes in Chicago, so here goes.

On Monday, I needed a little inspiration to pedal a few miles despite the dismal weather, so I decided make my first-ever visit to a Portillo’s Hot Dogs restaurant. Yes, although I recently created a map that highlights iconic restaurants in just about every Chicago community area, I have never eaten at a Portillo’s. It’s a Villa Park-founded, until-recently-Mexican-American-owned chain that serves as an ambassador for Chicagoland-style street food, selling Italian beef sandwiches, Chicago hot dogs, and Maxwell Street Polish sausages in locations as far afield as Florida and Las Vegas. In that sense, the company is doing the Lord’s work.

My route from Uptown to the nearest Portillo’s outpost in Avondale, which incorporated part of the recently-completed 312 RiverRun trail network, was quite pleasant. When I got there around 11 p.m. the dining room was closed, but there were several motorists waiting in the drive-through, so I got in line with my bicycle. That’s when multiple employees politely and apologetically told me they can’t serve anyone at the drive-through who’s not in a car because it’s against company policy, due to liability issues.

Portillo’s public relations department didn’t respond to the request I sent yesterday for clarification on the policy on not serving people on foot or bike via the drive-through, and why it exists.

When I tweeted my frustration with the situation, a dozen or so people responded that they’d had the same aggravating experience of being turned away from a fast-food drive-through because they weren’t in a car. Here’s a sample of the comments.

  • “I went there when it opened, sat outside entrance with my bike, downloaded and ordered on the app. Stupid policy, haven’t been back since. Shoutout to the heroes at Popeye’s at California and Diversey for being chill about me biking through the drive-thru.”
  • I always found the Edgewater White Castle to be bike-friendly.”
  • “So dumb. This happened to me at a different place once. Was at a bar, was hungry, walked somewhere that had closed inside but had an open drive through and they told me to come back with a car. When I said I was drunk, they repeated ‘You can come back in a car.”
  • “I’ve had the same experience at McDonald’s and it’s beyond frustrating.”
  • “This shouldn’t be allowed. If we are to have a city conducive to not owning a car, at a minimum bikes should be allowed in drive-throughs.”

Interestingly, in another city conducive to not owning a car, bikes are allowed in all drive-throughs, under certain circumstances. Brendan Kevenides from the bike-focused firm FK Law (a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor) informed me that in 2018, Portland, Oregon, passed a law requiring businesses with drive-throughs to serve people on foot and bike at times when there are no other options for getting service. “In a city [like Chicago] that claims it wants to encourage cycling, it is inexplicable that businesses with drive-through windows, like fast-food restaurants, are not required by ordinance to serve people on bikes,” Kevenides said.

Obviously there are some class issues involved – if you don’t make enough money to afford car travel, you can be denied service at pedestrian- and bike-hostile establishments, while the car-centric red carpet is rolled out for wealthier patrons. This was likely a significant issue for carless people during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, when dining rooms were closed and in some cases drive-throughs were the only way to order at fast-food joints. So would it be possible win a discrimination lawsuit?

“A lawsuit of the type you suggest would not likely be successful,” Kevenides said. “There is no federal, state or local law or ordinance that prohibits a business from discriminating against people based upon their mode of transportation.”

Fellow bike lawyer Michael Keating (also a Streetsblog sponsor) concurred. “Bicycles are not a protected class.” He also agreed that such rules are wrongheaded. “Terrible policy. Insurance restrictions are what they claim… [but] if this is driven by the insurance carriers then your target should be the insurance industry, not the restaurant.” In other words, he argues, hate the game, not the player.

A more serious issue during the crisis was that many pandemic testing sites were drive-through-only, although many others took walk-ins.

Kevenides said the drive-through issue affected him personally during the early days of COVID when he needed to pick up a prescription from a Walgreens and wanted to avoid potential exposure to the virus by using the drive-through, rather than walk into the store, and was turned away. “I don’t buy the excuse that such businesses are just trying to protect the biking public. If that were really the case, drive-throughs could be designed with the safety of bike riders in mind with good lighting, signage and other design elements. Elevating the driving public ahead of everyone else is silly and probably bad for business.”

On the bright side, as you can see from the tweet above, there’s at least one other beloved Chicagoland hot dog purveyor that welcomes cyclists with open arms.

Update 11/18/21, 8:15 AM: Immediately after publishing this post, I returned to the same Portillo’s and ordered food in the dining room. It was pretty good.

Update 11/18/21, 11:45 AM: The Chicago Tribune reported yesterday, “Portillo’s said early this year that it plans to open a restaurant in Joliet with no space for customers to sit down, but three drive-thru lanes.”