Product Managers Want To Know How To Make A Sandwich Special

The Potbelly sandwich chain is struggling to be different
The Potbelly sandwich chain is struggling to be different
Image Credit: Julien

Who doesn’t love a good sandwich? When lunch time rolls around (or perhaps dinner), there is something about grabbing a meal that you can hold in your hand that can be oh so satisfying. When it comes time for us to have a sandwich there are a lot of different options for us: we can make our own or we can go out and buy one. If we decide to go out and get a sandwich, then where should we go? Restaurants that make sandwiches are pretty easy to set up and so there are a lot of them out there. The product managers at one such restaurant, Potbelly’s, are struggling to come up with ways to change their product development definition in order to make their sandwich different from all the others.

The Problem With Potbelly

So if you were running a sandwich shop, what is the one thing that you would not want to do? The answer that the Potbelly product managers have come up with is to look just like all of the other sandwich shops. Potbelly is a sandwich chain that has been around for over forty years. They have created a loyal group of customers by hosting music performances in their stores and offering their customers hearty sandwiches with names like “A Wreck”.

The problem that Potbelly has run into is that their market has become much more crowded. It has become harder to distinguish them from the other sandwich makers who are out there. The number of sandwich stores that are being operated by fast-casual chains with more than US$50 million in annual sales grew 70% to more than 7,500 over the past 5 years. This category includes such chains as Jersey Mike’s Subs and Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches.

Potbelly first started to run into problems last year. Their growth started to slow. Sales at company owned restaurants, which is most of the 500 stores in the chain, fell 3.6%. That’s not going to look good on anyone’s product manager resume. What the product managers have discovered is that the average Potbelly customer visits their store 16 times per year. What they need to do is to find ways to get these customers to start to visit the store at least one more time per year.

How Potbelly Is Going To Turn Things Around

As product managers, we are responsible for making our products be a success. In order for that to happen, we need to find ways to get more people to discover and then buy our products. Over at Potbelly they have come to the realization that they are not going to be able to land more customers if they call their products by common names. Potbelly offer chicken-club and turkey sandwiches which can be found at almost any other sandwich shop.

Another problem that the Potbelly product managers are facing is that their menu has grown to be too complicated. Currently it has 155 different items on it and they are available at 66 different price points. What the product managers are planning on doing is reducing the number of items that are on the menu. They are also going to start to attempt to pair sandwiches with cookies and drinks. In the past, Potbelly has not been offering their customers any so called “combo” meals.

Other changes to the menu are also called for. The Potbelly product managers are going to be introducing two new barbecue pulled-pork sandwiches. One will be spicy and the other will not be. These are going to be offered in the restaurants for a limited amount of time. At the same time, the product managers realize that revenue from breakfast is important and so they will be looking for ways to boost their offerings there. One tool that other restaurants have used to generate more business has been loyalty programs. Potbelly has increased the number of people who are participating in their loyalty program by 60% and the program is now being used by 800,000 people. The company is now providing more personalized rewards and perks beyond what they used to do – give the customer a free cookie.

What All Of This Means For You

Everyone loves sandwiches and we all eat them quite often. When we are in the mood for a sandwich, the big question on our mind is where should we go to get a sandwich? The product managers at the Potbelly chain of sandwich shops would like us to pick them more often. However, right now they are having troubles standing out in a crowded market. Based on their product manager job description, what do they need to do in order to change things?

The Potbelly sandwich chain has been around for a long time. They have attracted a core group of customers based on their friendly environment and the quality of the food that they serve. The challenge that they have run into is that their market is starting to become very crowded. The number of sandwich restaurants has grown a great deal in the past five years. Potbelly’s problems first started to show up last year when sales in their stores started to drop. What the product managers realized is that they need to find ways to get customers to come to their stores more often. They need to be able to offer their customers unique products. The Potbelly menu has become too large, too complex, and lacks any type of combo meal. In order to be successful Potbelly is going to have to introduce new types of sandwiches and increase their use of their customer loyalty program.

Every restaurant has to stand on it’s own legs – it will survive and thrive if the food that it offers to its customers is both good and unique. The product managers at Potbelly realize that they have a dual challenge on their hands: they need to get more customers to try them out and then they need to find ways to get these customers to keep coming back. There is no question that their food is good, its just that so far it’s not been unique enough. Now that the Potbelly product managers realize what they need to do, they can take steps to make Potbelly sandwich the ones that we go for when we feel the need for a sandwich.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: What do you think that Potbelly can do to stand out from all of the other sandwich shops in their market?

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