Potbelly, Who?

Many people in the United States have likely never heard of Potbelly Sandwich Shop.  With locations almost exclusively in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Texas, Potbelly is geographically limited in ways that many of its competitor QSRs are not.  For even the most determined Californian,  it would take more than 1,000 miles of travel to reach the nearest Potbelly location. This makes it extremely unlikely that any Californian is frequenting Potbelly restaurants except, perhaps, while on domestic vacation.  But that hasn’t stopped Potbelly from cultivating an intense and devoted following in those cities where it operates.


Potbelly is a chain with Chicago roots.  Its first store opened on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago in 1977, and it expanded steadily from there, primarily across Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio.  In 1997, Potbelly made the leap to the District of Columbia.  In 2011, Potbelly went so far as opening two stores in Dubai.  It also operates a couple of stores in the Pacific Northwest and some around the Dallas and Houston areas.  Today, despite its geographic limitations, Potbelly has 413 locations, employs more than 7,000 people, and in 2015 had a revenue north of $370 million.  Examining Potbelly’s national numbers alone isn’t all that illuminating given its uneven distribution across the United States, but taking a look at consumer trends more specifically across Potbelly’s existing regions–by utilizing data from insights firm Sense360–leads to some interesting insights.  Sense360 harnesses a real-time panel of more than two million smartphone users across the nation to collect data on consumer behavior.  According to Sense360’s  multi-level data, Potbelly has developed some noteworthy trends.

Localized Data

Map of Potbelly visits

Over the last two months, Potbelly has pulled in just under 1 percent of the entire national QSR market for sandwich restaurants, landing it in 12th place among sandwich competitors.  As a point of comparison, Subway, the industry front-runner, has held nearly 48 percent of the national sandwich market, and the top seven QSR sandwich chains all held more than double Potbelly’s market share.  But we know that Potbelly doesn’t compete with the biggest players on the national scale.  Potbelly’s relative success depends instead on prominent performance in fixed local markets.

In Illinois Potbelly has nearly four times its national market share, carrying roughly 4 percent of the QSR sandwich market and landing in 6th place on the leaderboard.  In Michigan, Potbelly sits in 8th place, with just under 2 percent of the sandwich market.  In Ohio, Potbelly is in 9th place, with 1.2 percent of the market.  Meanwhile, in Chicago Potbelly is in 6th place, with 5.6 percent of the sandwich market, and in Washington D.C., Potbelly is in an impressive 5th place, with 6.2 percent.

Timing Trends

Another interesting feature of Potbelly’s data is revealed by examining breakdowns of hourly and daily visits to Potbelly.  For example, the graph below charts the number of visits per hour to Potbelly restaurants across the country:

potbelly visit graph

There is a clear peak at noon, with nearly 15 percent of Potbelly’s national daily traffic occurring during that early lunch hour.  Unlike many other sandwich restaurants, however, Potbelly lacks a substantial second peak during dinner time, with well under 10 percent of its daily visits occurring between 5 and 6pm.  By comparison, below is the same graph but for Subway restaurants across the country:

Subway visit graph

Subway has a much more noticeable second peak during the 4-7pm window.  Perhaps Potbelly should consider boosting its evening time offerings and market more specifically for dinner meals.

As for daily visits to Potbelly, it is apparent that Potbelly struggles on the weekend.  Below is a graph plotting visits to Potbelly restaurants by day of the week:

potbelly day of week visits

As you can see, Sunday is by far the chain’s lowest day, with under 10 percent of average foot traffic.  Saturday is the next lowest, with 13 percent of foot traffic, while Friday is the highest, with 17 percent.  Given Potbelly’s strength during early lunchtime and during the week, it seems like the sandwich chain is truly capitalizing on the work lunch crowd, while it has yet to make real progress pulling in customers after work or from home on the weekends.
Some potential good news for Potbelly is that, over the last two months, roughly half of its customers have been new, as evidenced by the graph below (orange reflects new customers and blue reflects returning customers):

potbelly percent of new customers

This means that Potbelly is doing a good job of marketing and attracting new and hungry patrons.  The goal, of course, is to get all of those new customers hooked on Potbelly’s grilled sub and salad fare, so that they come back routinely and loyally.  As far as loyalty goes currently, however, Sense360’s loyalty rate metric reveals that Potbelly lands in 14th place among sandwich purveyors, with a rate of roughly 67 percent.  Compared to Potbelly’s market share, this statistic is not so hot, and Potbelly should consider marketing and rewards strategies to ensure that its customers don’t defect to the competition too often.

Sense360 is an insights firm with a panel of over 2 million anonymous consumers and data on more than 150 million consumer trips a month. By understanding the visits and journeys of millions of people in the real-world, we are able to provide restaurants and retailers with detailed competitive and consumer insights.