Potbelly off the menu, in New York and on my mind

October 31, 2011

Potbelly has been in Manhattan for a few months now. And some New Yorkers are very excited.

I use the word “some” — and don’t just say, “And New Yorkers are very excited” — in the above sentence, because, despite the incredible amount of joy that dubious trend pieces bring me, I asked one New York friend if he liked Potbelly and he said, “Huh?”

Still, Potbelly was the lead story in the daily e-mail that Gothamist (the New York equivalent of Chicagoist) sent out yesterday.

Gothamist in turn pointed readers to a gushing story about Potbelly on a site called Midtown Lunch: Food Adventures for Your Urban Lunch Hour.

Because nothing says adventure like lunch at Potbelly.

A few sentences from the article: “The smoky, spicy meatballs were awesome.” "There were a lot of strong flavors working together.” “And if you’ve never had a Potbelly sandwich before, the toasty bread makes all the difference.”

I kept waiting for the line: “Remarkably, maybe even miraculously, it doesn’t matter what you put through a Potbelly conveyor belt oven — turkey, roast beef, ham, plastic equivalents of turkey, roast beef, ham that toddlers play with — it all comes out tasting the same.”

But that sentence never came. For now, it appears, (some) New Yorkers and the chain that we Chicagoans all know and loved/got sick of/still find ourselves going to every third day are in the honeymoon phase.

And that brings me back.

When I arrived in Chicago in the ‘90s with nothing but flannel in my suitcase, I was in love with Potbelly. To the point that I’d tell friends when I had gone there. I’d crank up my 56k modem to share the news I’d had a Wreck. Sometimes I’d even rave about the place’s décor.

I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm.

My job then was near North and Clybourn (Note: I was not a prostitute), and, when we couldn’t bear going to Wok’s Up, we’d drive to 2264 North Lincoln to the one and only Potbelly. Co-workers would pile into the car. In a city full of run-of-the-mill sandwich shops, chain or independent, those Potbelly lunches were special. Catching sight of your Potbelly sandwich slowly exiting the conveyor belt oven was the culinary equivalent of a new father getting his first glimpse of his newborn’s head emerging from the birth canal.

So, what happened?

Well, obviously, Potbelly expanded. And at first that was tremendous. “There’s a Potbelly now near my home!” “There’s one down the street from my girlfriend’s place!” “There’s one now around the corner from my office!”

But then it became, “There’s a Potbelly now near the one that’s near my home.”

Still, the décor was the same. Potbelly employees were still geniuses when it comes to identifying types of cheese on sandwiches as they come out of the conveyor. And the food didn’t get any worse, I don’t think. As far as I can tell, Potbelly’s expansion hasn’t meant substituting the ham with horse meat.

So, why does ubiquity make us like things less? (For a while, the exception to this was Ditka, but then he started selling wine and opening resorts.)

Potbelly may not be as special as it was when you’d savor every bite while blasting your Discman to drown out the guy playing Tracy Chapman covers on a second floor built just for him. But that shouldn’t affect the degree to which we enjoy the food. But it does. Potbelly has gone from being a destination to being an often disappointing fallback.

But maybe that’s all about to change — at least for me. The Gothamist and Midtown Lunch stories report that you can order “off the menu.” The Wrecking Ball, for example, is a Wreck with meatballs. The Fireball is the meatball sandwich with chili. There are more.

I’m ashamed I didn’t know this. I'm ashamed to admit it here. But maybe it'll mean the rekindling of a once hot and toasty love affair. If not, perhaps I'll head back to Wok's Up this week. It's been years.

(Mark Bazer hosts The Interview Show this Friday (Nov. 4) at The Hideout, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. His guests include pro wrestler and podcaster Colt Cabana, singer-songwriter Tony Rogers, the editors of Chicago Home + Garden magazine and stand-up Kelsie Huff. For more info, click here.)