Those who have called the Carolinas home for a substantial amount of time likely are not familiar with Potbelly Sandwich Shop.
Brent Brouse wants to change that and share with his neighbors his passion for the brand’s warm, toasty sandwiches, signature salads, hand-dipped shakes and eclectic atmosphere that combine to create an almost cult-like following in its existing markets.
Brouse, a Durham native, along with his wife, Michele, a Chicago native, opened the Cape Fear region’s first Potbelly Sandwich Shop on July 6, at 2525 S. 17th St. in Wilmington, near New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
Take it to the bank, it will not be their last.
In early 2019, the Brouses signed a franchise agreement with Chicago- based Potbelly Corp. (Nasdaq: PBPB) to open a minimum of 13 stores, with growth potential to as many as 25.
“The goal for me is to be a largescale operator,” said Brent Brouse. “I wanted some scale so I could actually deliver Potbelly up and down the eastern coast of both North and South Carolina.”
A Fan to Grow the Brand
After earning a degree in restaurant management from Purdue University, Brent Brouse moved to Chicago and worked with one of the city’s premiere restaurant groups, Lettuce Entertain You. There, he focused on opening locations of the company’s high-end concepts and was sent to oversee restaurant openings in Minneapolis and Las Vegas.
But, as he and Michele, who also holds a hospitality degree from Purdue, looked to start a family, they knew the late nights and long hours of the restaurant industry needed to stop.
“Fortunately, I had a transferable skill which was, instead of opening restaurants, I could open bank branches,” said Brent Brouse. “I got the opportunity to open bank branches in Chicagoland for PNC Bank, which is where I fell in love with Potbelly. I ate Potbelly almost daily.”
In 2012, Brent’s work with PNC Bank led the Brouses, now with three sons, to North Carolina.
But his passion for the food service industry kept calling.
“I decided I wanted to get back to the industry that I’ve always loved,” he said.
Starting Close to Home
The Brouses’ territory with Potbelly includes sizeable metro centers such as Charleston and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina and Wilmington, Fayetteville and Jacksonville.
After scouring those cities for spaces they felt best suited Potbelly’s first eastern Carolinas location, they found their sweet spot in the heart of Wilmington.
The Brouses plan to grow locally in the short term.
“I would like to have my first two to three, maybe even four locations here in Wilmington,” Brent Brouse said. “I’d really love to have something in the Mayfaire-Military Cutoff corridor. Porters Neck is an area of interest, and South College Road. around UNCW is a big interest.
“I just think it makes a lot more sense to bring the brand to a single market at a time,” he added.
Brent Brouse said COVID-19 is not so much an impediment to opening Potbelly locations because of the company’s already stringent health, sanitary and safety guidelines. Instead, he is seeing the pandemic’s effects primarily in finding suitable and cost-sensible spaces for new locations.
“I think a lot of landlords assume nobody’s looking to grow and expand,” he said. “We are. We’re looking to find those next couple locations. We’re putting the foot on the gas. I’d love to have two additional stores open by the end of the year.”
Staying Ahead of the Corporate Curve
Established in Chicago in 1977, Potbelly has around 450 locations nationwide. Unlike many of its competitors, the vast majority of Potbelly locations – more than 400 – are company owned, leaving just a small percentage owned by franchisees like the Brouses.
“If you look at Jimmy John’s or Jersey Mike’s or Subway; those are 99 % franchisee-owned,” said Brent Brouse. “We’re probably closer to 90 or 95 % company owned, and that’s not the right mix.”
But Potbelly Corp. is making dramatic changes to its model.
On July 20, Potbelly named Robert D. Wright as its president and CEO. Wright joined Potbelly from Wendy’s Co. where he oversaw operations for 6,000 company-owned and franchise-owned restaurants as executive vice president and COO.
“They have made a commitment to franchising,” Brent Brouse said about Potbelly’s company goals. “I tried to franchise with them as early as 2015, and they weren’t 100 % on board with doing that. They really love their brand. They’re very proud of their brand. They’ve got a very good following.
He added, “However, when you’re opening only company stores, it’s very capital intensive and it’s very hard to maintain consistency and quality. So, when you get away from a mothership like D.C. or Chicago, and you don’t have individuals that are financially vested in the outcomes of the stores, it’s hard to get them to be as passionate as most Potbelly employees are.
“So, they’ve realized that the best way to do this is to franchise. Let Potbelly fans and lovers who want to open their own shop join the team.”