Potbelly Sandwich Shop has come a long way since its debut 42 years ago in Lincoln Park, and this week the chain is unveiling a new store design. Customers no longer follow their sandwich when it is made in a conveyor oven, allowing employees at multiple stores to know what toppings they want. What was kitsch for longtime customers was deemed inefficient, and Potbelly now streamlines the ordering process with a single point of communication.
The company is not only hoping that the design, which debuts at a Logan Square location at 2739 N. Elston Avenue, will generate some buzz. CEO Alan Johnson said the new design also reduced operating costs by 25% compared to restaurants using the old design. These savings make it easier for franchise owners to get their money back. There are over 400 company-owned Potbelly stores in the United States and 50 franchises.
The new design replaces the wooden shelves in front of the oven with glass counters; customers can still see their sandwiches being prepared. Another Chicago-area location on the outskirts of Park Ridge will use the design later this year. Potbelly announced an expansion plan earlier this year for Las Vegas, Tampa, Florida, and the North and South Carolinas. These future locations will also use the new design with digital menu boards.
Customers found the old design distracting, Johnson found. âSometimes you just want a sandwich,â he said.
Potbelly officials have not said whether other existing locations will be modernized with the design. Johnson said Potbelly needs to do a better job touting its ingredients – the chain uses bread from Turano Baking Co. and workers hand-cut the meat and bake cookies on site. The new location was designed to make better use of third-party delivery services such as Grubhub and DoorDash. It has better WiFi connectivity. Guitarists, once the hallmark of the company, will no longer find their next gig in Potbelly. Johnson said he tried to find a way to save the music, but relented after hearing customer feedback.
Customers had known Potbelly for its antique store atmosphere since the first store opened in 1977 on Lincoln Avenue across from the former Children’s Memorial Hospital site. The competition between fast-casual restaurants has since exploded and it was time for Potbelly to catch up with its competition. Stores now include brighter lights and more stainless steel light fixtures inside. It’s a balance to be modernized without throwing away any of Potbelly’s old charm, Johnson said.
Johnson remains confident in Potbelly’s product, but acknowledges the restaurant’s clientele has changed over more than four decades. While the chain has added combination meals, the philosophy towards the food remains the same.
âAt the end of the day, you have to be famous for at least one thing,â Johnson said. “And over time you have to keep coming back to the one thing that Potbelly is known and famous for, and in our case, I think it’s the grilled sandwich.”