Inside Potbelly’s Recipe for Fast Casual Success

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Have you had a Potbelly’s sandwich? If you live in America, chances are you have. They’re in 32 states, have over 400 locations and they’re fantastic. On this episode of The CEO Series, I broke bread with Potbelly CEO Bob Wright and got his secret recipe for this national powerhouse franchise’s success.

Below are some highlights of that conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full video above.

On being a CEO

“I’ve had a lot of jobs in my career, and I think the best part about being a CEO is bringing all of that experience together, but still focused on the same exact thing. One of my mentors warned me that being the CEO can be lonely, and in fact, he gave me good advice to find others in similar positions who you can connect with and turn to. I trust the leaders on my team. I love engaging with my senior leadership team. They’re the smartest and the best in the business. But everyone is looking to the CEO to have a leadership position and to have a thought about the vision, the strategy, or the decisions of the day.”

Related: Avoid These 3 Key Mistakes for Team Success in 2024

On his business beginnings

“The summer after my freshman year in college, I wanted a job that summer that would pay me not only a wage but give a chance to earn tips. And I must not have been cut it waiting tables because I tried for almost a month. I walked into a Domino’s in Houston and asked if they were hiring. The guy asked me if I had blue pants. So I think that was my interview! I told him I did (which was a lie actually) and he said, ‘All right, see you back here at four o’clock.’ So I went to the mall and bought blue pants and started working at Domino’s and I was there for 12 years. I didn’t realize that taking opportunities that were presented to you could be as valuable as they could be if you were just willing to take the chance.”

The secret of Potbelly’s success

“We sit right in the sweet spot of the fast-casual consumer with this amazing differentiated menu of sandwiches that are hot and toasted at 500 degrees, as well as soups and salads made fresh when you order them. Our cookies are the best on the planet. Our sugar cookie is better than anyone I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve been a fan of this brand for 20 years and have always thought that it had great potential. It’s got great heritage, too.”

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On trends in fast casual dining

“I’d say some of it has its roots in the pandemic, but fast casual is clearly where the consumer is going. Higher quality, more value for the money, and more flexibility and opportunity to use that brand in the way that fits your life. Sure, people are going out, sitting down around a table, getting waiter service and so on. But fast casual is where all the massive growth is because that’s where the consumer is.”

On learning

“I love to read biographies of people that have been accomplished, have been great leaders, have been founders of our country. I thought David McCullough was a fascinating writer — Truman, 1776, those were, those were awesome books. I think you learn more from watching than from being told. And biographies are a way for us to watch what other people have done.”

Check out more profiles of innovative and impactful leaders by visiting The CEO Series archives.

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