Pros: Reasonable sandwiches with reasonable prices and a LOT of taste!
Cons: They're phasing out COFFEE?! CAFFEINE MAN MAD!!!
The Bottom Line: Sandwiches as big as pots but none as flat as pans!
Potbelly Sandwich Works is the oddest thing I've ever seen in my fast food lifetime. It is also one of, if not my absolute, unquestioned favorite fast food joint. In a world populated with fast food places which taste only a little bit different and look exactly alike, Potbelly dares to be different. Where you usually get raw or microwaved meat, Potbelly puts every sandwich through a roaster. Where most fast food joints decorate with bright, loud colors, Potbelly gives you a pleasant Earth tone made primarily from wood or something which looks a lot like wood. Where fast food places (with the exception of Jimmy John's) give you easy listening muzak which caters only to kids, Potbelly likes to rock you with classic rock and smooth blues and R+B, and at lunch hour, live music!
I've never had an unpleasant experience at a Potbelly. One of the most important things about a restaurant experience is how good the employees act. And at Potbelly, the employees are friendly and cheerful. I eat at many different Potbelly's in Chicago, and the employees at two of them - the Merchandise Mart and the Dearborn/Harrison intersection - know me by face and frequently by my favorite sandwich. But the employees at all of them present themselves as being genuinely thrilled to have you as a customer. This isn't a faked happiness, either - they all seem to be very happy with their jobs. If not, they at least take a lot of pride in their ability to do it well. More than once, I've been given part of an order for free as an apology if THEY screwed it up. This is what I call the best customer service on the planet. I love it when someone orders a shake - they shout out the type of shake!
The atmosphere is helped a lot by wooden furniture and dim lights, usually from lamps hanging from the ceiling and attached to the walls of booths. The music is classic rock at most Potbelly's I've visited, and many times I will hear fast-paced, feel-good tunes from The Who, Bob Seger, Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, and so many others I have trouble thinking of them off the top of my head. This does amazing things for your mindset upon walking in. Instead of feeling like you're at a sterile, metallic corporate invention where good feelings are as painted as Ronald's smile, Potbelly welcomes you and almost invites you to remove your shoes at the door, stretch your legs, and yak it up about the White Sox with the nearest employee.
There are more than a dozen delicious sandwiches to choose from, and they are all assembled and roasted right in front of your face. After the roasting, you get a choice of free toppings. Potbelly recently added the option of Skinny sandwiches, with less bread and meat, for $4.00 (prices for the Chicago area). I don't know the nutritional content of the sandwiches because I didn't bother to ask. It's not the responsibility of the store to make sure I don't have a heart attack, and besides, if you're eating at any fast food joint you're likely not particularly concerned about your health anyway. Anyway, Potbelly still tells you the Skinny option has less bread and less meat so you get 1/3 less fat. You can also get Thin-cut sandwiches with less bread but as much of everything else - including the $4.50 price - as any Potbelly Original. The Big option costs $5.50 and has more of the general stuff which makes a Potbelly sandwich a Potbelly sandwich.
There are also salads and chili available. As I've never felt the urge to order them, I will say no more on the subject. But you can get a combo of a sandwich and a small cup of chili for $6.99. It's nice but it doesn't make up for the fact that several Chicago-area Potbelly's have been phasing out their coffee due to budget constraints. I can't say I like this but it beats the hell out of taking the usual route and firing their workers. The coffee is basic Starbucks black coffee with the usual taste options.
The sandwiches are the selling point of Potbelly. Some are basic; there are typical ham and cheese and turkey and cheese options. But I like my sandwiches to have a big meat taste, and so I frequently order A Wreck, a powerful lumberjack combo of salami, roast beef, ham, and turkey with swiss cheese. I like the Italian sandwich when I don't feel like eating A Wreck. It has meat with Italian names I can never remember, but it also has a spicy pepperoni kick to it. (Pepperoni being the one meat on the thing I actually know.) If I'm on one of my frequent semi-health kicks, I like the vegetarian sandwich, which consists of mushrooms and four different kinds of cheese. But when you order a Potbelly sandwich, keep an open mind and just pick. You won't find a loser among the lot.
One sandwich I might order someday just out of curiosity is Big Jack's PB+J. This is a $4.00 sandwich and I wonder how popular it really is. It takes a lot of confidence in sandwich making abilities to throw in a popular American staple sandwich. It's not necessarily a bad move; Jimmy John's offers a similar American classic, a BLT, which is my favorite sandwich on their menu. But with Big Jack's PB+J, Potbelly not only offers you a sandwich every American makes at home, but they put their brands right out in full view for all to see. If you order this, you'll know you're ordering creamy Skippy brand peanut butter with grape-flavored jelly from Welch's. The bread Potbelly uses must make that particular combination pretty damn tasty since you can get Skippy creamy, Welch's grape, and your favored bread at any supermarket for just a few dollars more than the four bucks Potbelly charges and eat PB+J for a week.
Potbelly offers a selection of ice cream treats. This is another subject I won't tell you about due to my lack of ever ordering them, but they use Potbelly cookies to make their ice cream sandwiches. While I don't often order the ice cream, their cookies are wonderful baked goods which are a favored after-work treat of mine. My favorite is an oatmeal chip cookie. This is like an oatmeal raisin cookie, but with chocolate chips standing in for the raisins. Unfortunately, these things are also Potbelly's way of killing two birds with one stone because they don't offer the regular versions of either chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookies. Sugar cookies are also prominent in the Potbelly dessert arsenal, and some locations actually serve double chocolate. Sheila's Dream Bars are outstanding but sometimes a little small. They are oats, chocolate chips, and caramel in a little square of goodness. For best results with Dream Bars, you have to really luck out and get one when it's just out of the freezer.
Potbelly only recently - and by that I mean just this year, the year 2009 AD - added fountain drinks to their menu. Their drink selection otherwise includes pop in 12-ounce cans, along with brands of very sugary fruit juice and iced tea. The drink selection is the biggest weakness at Potbelly. The available brands of pop are strictly Coke brands, and delicious IBC brands of just about everything are at nearly every Potbelly. But the high prices don't really warrant drink purchases there. Cans are up to a dollar thanks to rapid inflation and IBC bottles are over $1.50. Fountain drinks offer the best deal, as you get slightly more pop for slightly over $1.50 for the smallest. But if it's a fountain drink you're after, you should get one of the bigger sizes. The shakes are good, sweet, thick, and refreshing, but at nearly $2.50 for maybe 12 ounces, I see that as a rip. And the $1.59 coffee isn't even available in many stores. They brew Starbucks, but your choice selection is between caffeinated and decaf. You don't even know what roast you're getting.
Like many fast food places, Potbelly also serves breakfast during morning hours. The sandwick selection here is much more standard, offering variations of bacon, eggs, and cheese. But you can get salsa as a sandwich topping for no extra charge, and there are muffin tops and bagels available for dessert. You can also pick up a bowl of Steel-cut Irish Oatmeal with toppings like vanilla extract, brown sugar, and raisins.
Despite the drink problems, Potbelly is an endearing fast food sleeper. People rush to copy the generic formulas, but Potbelly wants to give you comfort with a cozy atmosphere, friendly employees, and even single-person bathrooms with doors that lock. It's a clean place with a quaint but rocking charm. Yes, the sandwiches are more expensive than the average Whopper value meal, but they taste much better. (And in their defense, they are still cheaper than Quizno's, Jimmy John's, Subway, or many other sandwich joints. But their sandwiches are six inches, tops, and you don't get the option to get a half sandwich, just to be fair.) I'll just end this review here and now to avoid resorting to a bad pun.
Kid Friendliness: Yes Vegetarian Friendly: No Notes, Tips or Menu Recommendations It''s all good. As I say in the review, not a weak one in the bunch. But they only recently stopped charging extra to get pepperoni on your pizza sandwich. Yes, you read that right.