Bryant Keil Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2007
When Bryant Keil paid $1.7 million for Potbelly Sandwich Works in 1996, people thought he was crazy. At the time, Potbelly was a single Lincoln Park location that had evolved over decades from an antique shop into a neighborhood culinary phenomenon with a cult-like following of enthusiasts, of which Keil was one. Convinced he could take the unique sandwich joint to the next level, Keil acquired Potbelly and has since grown the concept into a 10-state chain that posted 2006 revenue of $140 million. Though the restaurant is no longer just a local favorite, Keil is dedicated to taking the character of the shop he fell in love with and preserving it at all 142 locations. Smart Business spoke to Potbelly’s biggest fan about the importance of staying true to your core values.


Maintain your company’s character. Potbelly is really a throwback to a time that’s gone by. We take the extra steps and extra effort in our stores to make sure we have the best products possible, and I never want us to lose that.

You can bring in efficiency experts and you become efficient but not very good. It’s something I fight to maintain. Through communication, we keep on track and keep our culture driving in the right direction.

While we change our organization over time, we still maintain the basic principles and tenets that we’re not going to vary from. We’re not going to go screaming to the world that we have cheap food or dollar sandwiches. We charge a fair price for a great sandwich.

With value-engineering, you start taking things like baseboard trim out; instead of doing cool, tin ceilings, you don’t put in a ceiling at all, and instead of doing wood, you do laminate, and instead of doing metal, you do plastic. Some think that the customer won’t notice the difference, but people do notice.

People pick that up over time and if it’s too mass-produced, it loses that homemade feeling. We’re not going to change our business. It’s the same thing with any company. If you’re known for building a high-quality product and you give up a little on the quality to do it faster, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Many businesses in our industry start out as something special, and then, over time, get really smart people who figure out cheaper, faster ways to do things and it all becomes the overprocessing of a culture.

Create benchmarks. Regular feedback mechanisms are essential for people to understand how they’re performing, so there have to be carefully articulated goals that are measurable and that can be used to help evaluate their progress. It’s essential.

We’re not a perfect organization. We’re a fast-growing company, and seven years ago we were running the business in a very different way. What we’re trying to do is be true to our history but we’re also trying to build a fluid organization that can scale over time. To establish a scalable organization, you have to have benchmarks with which to judge the performance of individuals and the team as a whole.

Tying performance to compensation is a reasonable thing to do, but it’s more than just money. People want to know where they stand, and part of the ability of an organization to maintain its culture is dependent on how quickly an organization can diagnose a problem.

If you let something linger on and don’t communicate, the risk of imprinting bad behavior can become overwhelming to an organization. Having diagnostic tools available to determine how they’re performing is critical to laying the foundation for a successful organization.

Pass your culture on to future leaders. One of the things we’re working on to make sure we maintain our culture is an immersion program where we identify future leaders of our organization. We break it into smaller groups of case studies with company veterans who have been around and we tell stories about what has happened and things that have helped imprint our culture.

We try to make sure we don’t forget our past. If you forget your past, you won’t have a future. It will help us maintain our culture and it will help us imprint on our people why we think it’s important. It’s important for our employees to understand where we’ve come from.

Having a connection that can help carry our culture — and it has to be beyond our home office and out to the field — is essential. This gives us a tool for delivering our culture to the field.

Stay true to your roots and avoid conformity. Culture is not something that’s written on a piece of paper. Culture is created over time, and it’s created over the actions of the organization.

If you have an organization that is thoughtful and caring about its people and others, you will have that type of culture going forward. At the same time, while we empower our people, we definitely have an accountable structure.

You’re empowered to take action to drive your business and do the right thing, but you’re also accountable for the results.

Over time, we have created a culture that has strong values and a belief that we can do something that hasn’t been done before, and we have a unique opportunity to preserve our organization and preserve our ability to do better things in the world. We will have this opportunity as long as we’re able to stay true to who we are.

If you try to become like everybody else, then you will be everybody else and you’ll be managing by quarter and not taking a long-term view. My thought is to take a long-term view on our organization.

There are always curves in the road; even the fastest highways have curves, but it’s how you take the whole mission that determines how you’re going to be successful. If we maintain our culture and our values, the sky is the limit.

HOW TO REACH: Potbelly Sandwich Works, or (312) 951-0600