Potbelly Chief Development Officer Larry Strain sees a future where Potbelly has 2,000 shops in the coming years, with 85 percent of them being franchised locations. He believes the brand will get there through the company’s Franchise Growth Acceleration Initiative, which focuses on new franchise agreements as well as refranchising select company-owned markets.
“What really sets us apart right now is that we’ve taken our time and broadened our resources,” Strain says. “Over the last year we’ve focused on our people, technology, and menu to get the brand where it is today. Now the pencils are down and we’re really hitting the streets to get the word out: We are poised and ready for rapid growth.”
The brand is choosing to move forward with this massive franchising push at a great time, too, when it has some serious momentum behind it. Potbelly’s same-store sales grew 33.8 percent year-over-year in the fourth quarter of 2021, and 14.1 percent over the pre-pandemic fourth quarter of 2019. Sales comps increased 30.3 percent year-over-year in 2021 as well, which has the brand positioned to meet its goal of having $1.3 million AUVs by the end of 2023.
So how has the brand gotten here? For one, it has launched a new menu that focuses on improved value proposition, helping to increase traffic and average check sizes. Potbelly has also upgraded its footprint-wide tech stack, including rolling out a revamped app, website, online ordering system, and upgrading its Potbelly Perks loyalty program. The commitment to digital improvements has not been lost on the brand’s devoted following—Potbelly reports that 36 percent of its orders now come via a digital channel.
“Digital really is here to stay,” Strain says. “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.”
The brand’s menu has always been centered around oven-toasted sandwiches, but Strain is quick to note that soups, salads, mac and cheese, hand-dipped shakes, and cookies—baked fresh daily—also play an important role in the brand’s identity. Where some sandwich shops have a single daypart in which they excel, Potbelly has three, plus a robust catering program.
But Strain believes what really sets the company apart from competitors is its culture. It’s a place where customers want to be, partially because it’s a company where employees like to work thanks to an emphasis on “our good vibes culture, respect, loyalty, and dignity within all of our restaurants, giving our associates a great place to work,” Strain says. “People want to be a part of this.” Recently, the brand began offering digital tips to employees to lean into its identity as an employer of choice.
Now, Potbelly is looking for franchisees to grow with throughout the country. Strain sees opportunities to develop in both traditional and non-traditional areas, and believes seasoned multi-unit operators in large metro areas looking to diversify their portfolio would be the best fit for the brand.
“We know what we have here,” Strain says. “We have a presence in over 30 states, from coast-to-coast, north to south. We’ve operated over 400 locations for a very long time. We’re not the typical emerging brand that operates with less than 20 locations. With Potbelly’s 45-year history, we’ve seen just about every market condition you can think of and we’ve perfected our model to make it a worthy franchise investment.”
For more on franchising with Potbelly, visit the company’s franchising website.