As was the case with many of its peers, the once-beloved neighborhood sandwich shop Potbelly struggled heavily during the pandemic. Kicking 2021 off with mass closures of 28 locations, it seemed that the Chicago-based brand was on a downward spiral that would be hard to interrupt. However, the tides are turning for the unsteady sandwich purveyor, which now plans to make up for those closures with hundreds of new locations.
Potbelly’s Chief Development Officer Larry Strain told QSR Magazine the brand is positioned for massive growth in the coming years. The goal? To grow its more than 400 restaurants across 30 states to a nationwide footprint of 2,000. And it plans on getting there thanks to a new Franchise Growth Acceleration Initiative, a massive franchising push that will add new operators to the chain’s network.
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Coming out of the pandemic, Potbelly has seen evident growth from downsizing its menu and pivoting its business model toward digital. In the fourth quarter of 2021, its same-store sales grew 33.8% over the same time period in 2020, marking a remarkable recovery.
Potbelly has upgraded its app, website, online ordering system, and loyalty program. Prior to this, the sandwich chain relied on foot traffic and was strategically placed in urban locations and near airports—all of which were hit the hardest during the pandemic lockdown. Now, since its technology revamp, the company has reported that 36% of its orders come through digitally.
“Digital really is here to stay,” Strain told QSR Magazine in an interview. “And that’s something we’ve focused on in a big way. If there’s one positive aspect of COVID, it’s that it helped restaurant companies better understand the importance of digital ordering, and that’s something we’ve taken head-on.”
Potbelly capitalized on having a niche in the fast-food realm. The sandwich chain was loved by customers for having a neighborhood appeal, where some locations even offered live music performances by local musicians during lunch hours. An antique-store-turned-sandwich shop, Potbelly kept a rustic interior and was slower to modernize. When it finally opened its first drive-thru in 2007, McDonald’s had already had one for 60 years.
The chain will continue to specialize in its oven-toasted sandwiches and “good vibe culture,” according to Strain, but will also highlight soups, salads, mac and cheese, hand-dipped shakes, and baked fresh daily cookies. Additionally, the brand intends to keep its expansive catering program.
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