Matt Bonner’s The Sandwich Hunter : Nov. 2, 2009 - Chicago
Entry #2 - Potbelly, Chicago
by Matt Bonner
It was 1977. The Bee Gees were taking over the pop charts, Brent Barry turned 6, and Star Wars was dominating the box office. That same year, Peter Hastings started serving sandwiches at his antique shop down on Lincoln Street in Chicago. He called it Potbelly Sandwich Works. It all started with a man, a dream, and a sandwich. Now the Potbelly empire has expanded to over 300 shops nationwide, and for good reason.
While most sub shops vest themselves in an abundance of sandwich options and ingredients, Potbelly's takes the road less traveled. They don't complicate things with dozens of bread choices, sauces, cheeses, etc. They stick to the basics. But what they're menu lacks in quantity, it makes up for with quality. Each sandwich offered is truly a masterpiece of simplicity. They use fresh ingredients and each sub is toasted to perfection.
What also makes Potbelly's great, is the supporting cast. Fox Mulder and Dana Scully had the Cigarette Man, Alex Krycheck, The Lone Gunmen, and A.D. Skinner (that's right I just referenced The X-Files)... While the Potbelly sandwich is surrounded by excellent smoothies, chips, hand-dipped ice cream, cookies and beverage selection. I love the fact that I can compliment my sandwich with a mango-orange Nantucket Nectars (one of my favorite juices), a freshly baked oatmeal chocolate chip cookie, and a bag of delicious barbeque-ranch potato chips (a very underrated and underrepresented flavor).
Finally, I think it is worth mentioning the music-friendly eating environment. The original Potbelly's was known for its live music and the modern shop stays true to it's roots. The employees wear shirts with guitars on them, the walls are decorated with music memorabilia, and there is even a loft built across from the cash register so that local musicians can perform while patrons enjoy their food. A lot of sandwich shops neglect the dining atmosphere, so it's nice to see that Potbelly's goes the extra mile to separate themselves from others in this regard.
Despite a change in ownership and hundreds of locations covering a vast geographic territory, Potbelly's is still privately owned and operated. The charm and decor of Peter Hasting's original shop has been preserved and applied to all that have come after it. Potbelly's has yet to cross over into the realm of corporate franchising. I'll be very curious to see if anything changes in quality whenever they take the inevitable plunge to the dark side. But until then, Peter Hasting's dream has grown into an empire. And what once fed good sandwiches to a few hungry mouths on Lincoln Street, now does the same for millions across the country. I salute thee, Peter Hastings... A true sandwich man.