The Best Place for Lunch

Title: The Best Place for Lunch
Summary: This an Essay I wrote on Potbelly Sandwich Shop in the Spring of 2011 for a creative non-fiction class.
Disclaimer:  This article/essay is copyright Dawn Kelley and all rights belong to me.



Peter Hastings knew the Grinder was a good sandwich, but he couldn’t have imagined this! Once again there was a line from the door of his little hole-in-the-wall shop traveling straight on down the block. He had long since given up thinking even a few of them where there for the antiques. Yet the antiques were a part of the charm, or so he was told. How many times had he seen children marvel at the player piano, amazed as it punched out tunes of its own accord? Of course now a man sat at said piano punching out tunes. People also occasionally came with other instruments, the guitar a popular one, willing to provide entertainment to the masses as they lined up for the hot-sandwich sensation. Sometimes they didn’t even care if they were paid or not, but Mr. Hastings felt he owed them something for their contribution to the atmosphere… even if it was just a sandwich.

I imagine these as the feelings of Peter Hastings as he and his wife watched something considered a side job of their shop explode into its primary money maker. The Hastings originally ran an antique shop called Hindsight on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. It was a very tiny place hardly built to serve lunch to hundreds within a single day (though it soon would). Hastings particularly liked antique Potbelly stoves and even wrote a newsletter concerning the restoration of antiques. However, the antiques weren’t flying off the shelves. To supplement their income, in 1977 the Hastings decided to add to the business by providing a place to have lunch. In addition to the love of the antique Potbelly stove, Hastings brought with him a love of a hot sandwich called “the Grinder” served in Italian Delis in his hometown in East Rode Island. Despite mythos to the contrary Potbelly stoves were built to be heating units, not cooking units, so they never actually cooked a Potbelly Sandwich in a Potbelly stove. But boy did they did cook up some sandwiches in the little place. Chicago fell in love with the Hastings’s hot sandwich and the cozy little corner they provided to enjoy the sandwich. Soon people were lined up around the block from this tiny little antique shop clamoring for Hasting’s hot sandwiches. So Hindsight the antique shop ended and Potbelly Sandwich Works the sandwich shop was born. It remained his cozy little place on Lincoln Avenue until 1996. That was the year a tiny formerly failing antique shop sold for $1.7 million. Being a great place to have lunch really paid off.


The sandwich wasn’t all that impressive, Bryant Keil thought, so what was up with the crowd? Dragged to the hole-in-the wall shop, the young entrepreneur looked around at the insane amounts of people lined up and just didn’t get it. The ambiance was nice, he had to admit. Everyone who worked in the little place was nicer than a quarter of the people he met in larger, fancier, and much more expensive places. There was live music. There were books you were allowed to pick up, read and return (or not return) at your leisure. That was only a tiny part of the unique charm of this place. The little store was host to a collection of these quirky little odds and ends that you just didn’t find in your average sandwich shop. It was a wonderful place to spend lunch, if you were one of the lucky few who got a seat in the place. Even with the limited seating, the owner didn’t seem to be in a rush to force anyone out, no matter how long they wanted to sit. The only problem was the sandwich just wasn’t all that great. Not bad, just not good enough to justify the insane lines that the place drew in. It had to be the ambiance, he thought, as he was dragged back by his friends three years later. He was ordered by his associates to get his sandwich hot (he’d insisted on a cold sandwich on his first trip). Magic danced on his taste buds at the first bite. This was it, the icing on the cake; you had to get it hot!

This is a lose interpretation of the experiences of Bryant Keil as he experienced Potbelly for the first and second time in 1993 and 1996 respectively before laying down the healthy sum of $1.7 million. Because of this experience almost all Potbelly’s now have a sign hanging in it that says “Ya gotta get it Hot” (even though, if you request it, they’ll give it to you cold). His wasn’t the first offer Hastings ever had for the little place, but Keil’s enthusiasm for the business sealed the deal for Hastings. Keil didn’t want to just buy the business and turn it over to others to run while he collected the cash, he wanted to learn it. He worked in the store after his purchase just so he could learn all the little quirks that made Potbelly Sandwich Works, work. Much like Hastings wife had been a part of the business, so Keil’s family became infused in the business. Keil’s wife created a delicious desert that’s still a staple of Potbelly desert choices today, the lovely treat known as Shelia’s Dreambar. His son Jack is the inspiration for the popular kid’s choice on the Potbelly Menu, Big Jack’s PB&J. Keil didn’t just buy the business and crank out inferior plastic replicas, he lived in it for awhile. The first year was all about studying what made Potbelly such a great place to have lunch.


Carl Segal and Bryant Keil stood in the second Potbelly hardly able to believe they’d done it. THEY had done it, with the help of a few hired hands, but they had put true blood, sweat, and tears into making this second sandwich shop special. They’d use their own two hands to put the last coat of paint on the shop only minutes ago. Unfortunately, it was the night before the opening and they were praying that they had enough time to let it dry before the doors were opened for business in the morning. They took a minute to take it all in, the real wood tables, the bookshelf full of random reading, the eclectic artwork on the walls, and the random antiques that weren’t random at all. Each little nick-nack had been carefully handpicked by Keil to make this location both look like its brother, and have its own charm. The place was complete with its very own beating heart of warmth, the potbelly stove at its center. There was nothing to do now but go home and hope the magic that was found on Lincoln Ave would extend its arms out to its brother. It did.

There was a reason all Keil’s friend’s thought he was insane to buy a restaurant, he really didn’t know anything about the food service industry. He didn’t know enough to expand things properly at least. Segal was hired and became Keil’s right hand man in both figuring out the machine of the original business and tightening ship in a way that made the growth of the business and option. They both were sure of one thing, they wanted those charming little quirks that made Potbelly unique to exist in every store after it. In 1997 they opened the doors of Potbelly Sandwich Works #2. After the successful birth of a second store so began the process of expanding. To make sure the quaint uniqueness of the antique store turned sandwich shop stayed in place they decided to do one store a year, each as carefully and cautiously picked out and set up for as the second. They wanted every new store to both nod to Potbelly’s roots and reflect the neighborhood it lived in so that customers felt like they belonged there within seconds of walking through the door. This one-store-a-year process stayed in place until the year 2000 when expansion grew a little more rapidly, eventually leaving Chicago for sites both around Chicago and further east. Even today each shop space is carefully chosen in pre-existing buildings (things already a part of the neighborhood) and it’s décor carefully chosen so that it fits with its Potbelly brothers while bringing a uniqueness all its own. In 2008, Bryant Keil entrusted what he created to a new CEO, Aylwin Lewis. Keil stayed on as the Chairman to the Board of Directors. A ton of change has transpired since Lewis was given the reins, but as Segal points out ‘We’ve held onto the things important to us’. Potbelly seeks to keep in every store the sense of the that cozy little antique shop that played host to a wonderful place to have lunch.


‘What the heck is a Potbelly?’ thought the passers-by as they looked at the advertisement for the new store. The old building had been home to several other places that came and went. To be honest, the passers-by didn’t have much faith that this place would last long, but it was something new. One of them had worked at the restaurant that had shut down, so he decided to jot down the number on the ‘now hiring’ sign. The guy on the end of the phone call was insanely friendly and welcoming, telling him he could either apply online or come to a Potbelly not far from the first for an open interview. Just so he could know what the heck a Potbelly was, he went to the already open Potbelly (it was also kind of new to the area). Unfortunately, he got there at the high point of lunch. His friends, also curious, had come along. They groaned at the line, but decided to get sandwiches anyway. Might as well know what the food tasted like since one would be near-by (even if he didn’t get hired). They started at the end of the line hanging out the door and in about 5 minutes found themselves close to the cash register. Yet they hadn’t been rushed, all along the way they met smiling faces and people willing to help them as they stumbled their way through the sandwich ordering assembly line. When the applicant reached the register he told them he was there for the open interviews happening after lunch and he was handed a paper application. One of the questions on the application was “Have you ever visited a Potbelly location? Where? Describe your experience?” He couldn’t wait to start answering that one! A few weeks later, he was wearing the uniform and excited to give customers the same warm feeling he’d felt walking in the door.

This is story isn’t the story of one actual associate, but the combination of many of the stories I’ve heard over the four years I’ve spent training Potbelly associates. People who work for Potbelly, from Corporate to the newly hired trainee, are usually as big a fan of Potbelly as the people coming to eat there. If they’re not a fan walking in the door then they become one in the process of being hired. Potbelly employees at every level understand that they are the experience as much as the musician hired to play the tunes throughout the lunch rush. Being a Potbelly “fan” is about more than loving the food. The food is important of course (it’s a restaurant), but it’s also about always feeling welcome when you walk in the door. Year after year, no matter how much the company grows, one goal remains strong. Potbelly seeks out employees that create that sense of welcome to their customers. Efficiency is good, speed is appreciated, but friendliness and customer care is necessary. They want employees that believe, as strongly as the customers, that Potbelly is the best place for lunch.

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