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Chicago-Based Potbelly Sandwiches Unveils Restaurant Design Revamp

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The struggling chain also ditched guitarists in its quest to generate buzz

Two customers lineup to order at a counter restaurant.
Potbelly Sandwich Shop customers will now order at the cash register.
Potbelly Sandwich Shop [Official Photo]
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Potbelly Sandwich Shop has come a long way since it debuted 42 years ago in Lincoln Park, and this week the chain unveils a new store design. Customers no longer follow their sandwich as its made down a conveyor oven, letting multiple store employees know what toppings they want. What was kitschy to long-time customers was deemed inefficient and Potbelly now streamlines the ordering process with a single point of communication.

The company not only hopes that the design, which debuts at a Logan Square location at 2739 N. Elston Avenue, will generate buzz. CEO Alan Johnson said the new design also reduces operational costs by 25 percent compared to restaurants using the old design. Those savings make it easier for franchise owners to make their money back. There are more than 400 company-owned Potbelly shops in the U.S. and 50 franchises.

Several diners sitting at a fast-casual restaurant.
Potbelly has brighten up its dining rooms.
Potbelly Sandwich Shop [Official Photo]

The new design replaces the wooden shelves in front of the oven with glass counters; customers can still see their sandwiches being made. Another Chicago-area location in suburban Park Ridge will use the design later this year. Potbelly announced an expansion plan earlier this year for Las Vegas, Tampa, Florida, and North and South Carolinas. Those future locations will also use the new design with digital menu boards.

Customers found the old design distracting, Johnson found. “Sometimes you just want a sandwich,” he said.

Potbelly officials didn’t say if other existing locations will be retrofitted with the design. Johnson said Potbelly needs to do a better job of touting its ingredients — the chain uses Turano Baking Co.’s bread and workers hand-cut meat and bake cookies on premises. The new location was designed to better utilize third-party delivery services like Grubhub and DoorDash. It has better WiFi connectivity. Guitar players, once a hallmark of the company, will no longer find their next gig at Potbelly. Johnson said he tried to find a way to save the music, but he relented after hearing customer feedback.

Potbelly’s new glass counter.
Potbelly Sandwich Shop [Official Photo]

Customers knew Potbelly for its antique store feel since the first shop opened in 1977 on Lincoln Avenue across from the former Children’s Memorial Hospital site. Competition among fast-casual restaurants has since exploded and it was time for Potbelly to catch up with its competitors. Stores now include brighter lights and more stainless steel fixtures inside. It’s a balance to modernize without throwing away any of Potbelly’s old charm, Johnson said.

Johnson remains confident in Potbelly’s product, but acknowledged the restaurant’s customer base has changed over more than four decades. While the chain added combo meals, the philosophy toward the food remains the same.

“At the end of the day, you have to be famous for at least one thing,” Johnson said. “And over time you have to keep on coming back to the one thing that Potbelly is known and famous for, and in our case I feel it’s the toasted sandwich.”