Potbelly, the Chicago-based sandwich chain hit hard by the pandemic, has hired former Wendy’s executive Robert Wright as its new CEO.
Wright succeeds Alan Johnson, a former BevMo CEO who has been at the helm of Potbelly Corp. since December 2017.
Wright served as chief operating officer at Columbus, Ohio-based Wendy’s for five years, until May 2019, according to his LinkedIn profile. His 30 years of restaurant industry experience include executive roles at Charley’s Grilled Subs and Checkers Drive-In Restaurants.
Potbelly has been trying to turn itself around, a process that was upended by COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. The company said during its earnings call in May that it was considering permanently closing 100 stores after first-quarter revenues fell 11% and net losses totaled $13.3 million. Same-store sales — sales at restaurants open at least 15 months — plunged 70% early in the pandemic and saw a 45% decline in May.
Potbelly, which has about 470 restaurants, came under fire when it was approved for $10 million in funding from the federal Paycheck Protection Program meant for small businesses. Under pressure, it returned the money.
The sandwich chain, founded in a Lincoln Park antique shop in 1977, had been struggling in recent years as it fell behind in the competition for fast-casual diners. Last year it announced a new franchise program and new store designs as part of a turnaround plan.
Potbelly said Wright’s immediate task is to accelerate the plan and cited his franchising experience in its announcement of the leadership change.
“Bob’s ability to quickly identify and leverage brand strengths, as well as his substantial operations expertise, make him uniquely equipped to lead Potbelly during this critical time for our Company,” Joe Boehm, lead director of Potbelly’s board, said in a news release. “Bob also completed a transition of 1,100 company restaurants to franchise ownership during his time at Wendy’s, and we expect to leverage this experience as we return to system growth.”
Under Johnson, Potbelly expanded delivery, launched a mobile ordering app and introduced combo meal deals. It also launched a new store design meant to cut costs and improve the somewhat chaotic ordering experience. The new design nixed the exposed brick walls and wood paneling for a more modern look and had customers order at the register rather than follow their sandwich down the production line specifying what toppings to add.
The company offered no details about Johnson’s departure.
In a news release, Wright said: “Despite the challenges the current environment brings, I am confident that the core strengths of the Potbelly brand are exactly the qualities that make a successful, growing brand and company.”
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